Whenever I read a good historical fiction novel, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia for some reason. Maybe it’s because I read mostly historical fiction when I was a child, or maybe it’s just my strong love of history that draws me completely in. But for whatever reason, I definitely got that feeling while reading Helen Simonson’s, The Summer Before the War.
The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love and war that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.
East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.
I loved Simonson’s writing style. I think it flowed really well and truly helped bring the village of Rye and its inhabitants to life. It was surprising how her writing style fit in with the time period perfectly. It almost reads like a classic novel actually written during the time period of which it is set in. However, do not let that fool you. It is still a very easy to read book and it does not tend to meander into lengthy irrelevant passages, as classically written novels tend to do. I never found myself struggling to understand the message of the story.
The plot of the story was also very engaging. I loved following the lives of multiple characters and how they were all connected through Rye. This story has a little bit of everything, including romance and family drama. I never found myself bored, but instead I was constantly wanting to pick up the book to see what was going to happen next. I appreciated all of the mix of characters that each brought something unique to the story. Coming from someone who has grown up in a small town, I definitely felt a connection with the all of the drama that ensued in the story.
Our three main POV characters were all compelling with their own interwoven story lines. Agatha is the more forward-thinking of the group of upper class women in Rye. After convincing the school board to hire Beatrice as the Latin teacher, she takes her under her wing and becomes a motherly figure for the young woman. I really enjoyed Agatha’s character. She toed the line between being a conservative upstanding citizen in the community and the progressive and stubborn woman that she is at home. Beatrice is definitely a progressive woman for the times, as she has grown up living a bohemian and intellectual style with her professor father. She speaks her mind and is willing to put up a fight for the things that she cares for. And then there is Hugh, the solid and reliable aspiring doctor with a big heart. I loved Hugh. He was always so caring and understanding with everyone he comes into contact with. I also really enjoyed his bond with his cousin, Daniel, and how he looks out for him like a big brother would.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was engaging and entertaining, especially when it comes to examining all of the different characters within Rye and their interactions with one another. I think this would be the perfect cozy book to pick up during the upcoming holiday season. If you’re a fan of shows like Downton Abbey or just historical fiction in general, I think you’ll really enjoy this book as well.
Final Verdict: 5/5 Stars
Have you read The Summer Before the War? If so, what did you think of it? Which character was your favorite? Do you enjoy reading historical fiction?