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If you’ve been wanting more Downton Abbey, this book is for you.

Helen Simonson’s success with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand continues with her second novel—this one peering into the insular English village of Rye. It is the summer before World War I, and the villagers, ruled over by Lady Marbely, are blissfully ignorant that their lives are about to change, irrevocably, as the world balances on the cusp of a long and brutal war.

Simonson deftly underscores this naivete when war breaks out and residents agree to take in refugees from Belgium, only to be appalled by their bedraggled state once they arrive. To the villagers’ dismay, the Belgians are hardly the cherub cheeked little angels they had imagined, but rather entire families desperate to stay together.

In the midst of the resettlement, Beatrice Nash, daughter of a scholar, arrives in Rye as the school’s new Latin teacher. However, in an era of extremely limited choices for women, Beatrice is forced to realize that, because of her gender, neither education nor ability are enough to guarantee her a living wage or even a job. Also, while the dichotomy of the service class versus the aristocracy is not as pointed as it is in Major Pettigrew, the limited choices to those not born to wealth are made quite clear in this book—as is the fact that a thriving middle class has yet to come into existence.

Sprinkled with wit, even romance, the book never shies away from the brutality of the war, one that all but eradicated an entire generation of British men, nor from a social order gasping its last breath. Yet Simonson never allows either to dominate her novel. The story remains a character driven one, allowing some to find their full potential in the crucible of a war, while others give way to cruelty and callousness.

The author’s sharp eye for the way people interact and her wry sense of humor are manifest in this novel. Readers will find small treasures throughout, whether in a humorous escapade, a clever turn of phrase, or a deft hint that later blossoms into full realization.

In places, Simonson displays a singularly gifted turn of phrase—her “hammered pewter sea,” rivals Homer’s “wine dark” one, or when a character posits that “no woman can resist hearing her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter.” These are only a couple of the gems scattered throughout the narrative, all of which prove that Simonson’s debut with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was no fluke.

See the Reading Guide for The Summer Before the War.

 


Cara Kless
Cara spent 10 years as a Library Reader’s Advisor in between performing with a belly dance troupe and teaching dance classes. She prefers Swinburne to Shelley, Faulkner to Hemingway, and can be found on most rainy days curled up with a good book and a cup of earl gray, hot.

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