Monday, May 2, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson: A review

The Summer Before the War: A NovelThe Summer Before the War: A Novel by Helen Simonson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The war in the title is World War I. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the little town of Rye in East Sussex. It is the summer of 1914. Belgium has been invaded by Germany and England is girding itself for war.

It was a time of innocence and patriotic fervor. Amid parades and festivals, the English prepared themselves for war in the certitude that they would soon vanquish Germany and everything would be as it was before. Little did they know...

The main thrust of the story that Helen Simonson tells here is about the status and treatment of women during this era. She tells the story through the experiences of a young teacher, Beatrice Nash.

Beatrice arrives in Rye to teach students Latin. This is apparently a shocking state of affairs for the residents of Rye. Who ever heard of a woman teaching Latin?

Beatrice is a well-educated woman who must make her own way in the world following the death of her much-loved academic father. She is of an independent nature and shocks everyone by not only teaching Latin but also riding a bicycle!

She learns that she has an ally in one of the town leaders, Agatha Kent, who had advocated for her hiring. Agatha is also a strong and independent woman, the wife of a diplomat. She has her adversaries in town, including the wife of the mayor who is a particularly silly woman and is one of the ones shocked by the idea of a female Latin teacher.

Simonson introduces several strong women characters to the tale, all of whom struggle against society's expectations of them. Women have very few rights to be in control of their lives and fortunes in the world of England in 1914. Moreover, attitudes toward rape victims, including those who become pregnant as a result of their rapes, and toward homosexuals would be a comfortable fit in the right-wing politics of today. She also explores class differences and the attitudes of the citizens of Rye toward their Romany neighbors as well as the Belgian refugees who are pouring into the country. Many of those opinions sounded very familiar in this year's political season.

Summer winds down and the young men of the area are feeling the pressure to sign up and go to war. Among them are Agatha Kent's two nephews; Hugh, a surgeon, and Daniel, a budding poet. This causes her no end of anguish as she strives to find a way to keep them - especially Daniel - from going.

The action of the novel moves at a snail's pace, even as that last summer must have felt like a suspension in time. Its slow pace made it difficult to really get into the story at first. I found myself being irritated with several of the characters and wishing they would just get on with it. But Simonson will not be hurried. She takes time to develop her plot and flesh out the characters and their relationships, and that pays off in the end.

During the last quarter of so of the book, I was fully invested in the story and hoping that all of those characters that I had come to care about would come through unscathed. But it was a time of war, after all, and, finally, no one was unscathed.



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4 comments:

  1. I've seen this book popping up everywhere lately. I'm glad you liked it.

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    1. I can't say that I liked it as much as her previous book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, but it was an enjoyable, if slow-moving, read.

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  2. I did not know that so many women's issues were part of the story. My mom was a grade school music teacher during WWII but had to take on Language Arts, for which she was not trained, because most of the male teachers got drafted!

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    1. It was a time when the suffragette movement was beginning to make waves and women were chafing at being treated like brainless beings whose only function was to serve men. You know, not that different from today!

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