Monday, January 4, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson’s new novel The Summer Before the War pulled me right in at chapter 1. This book by the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand opens in England in the summer before the Great War.

The narrative is lovely and lyrical but the plot is very slow moving. Very slow moving. If you are looking for lots of action, this book is not for you. It is very wordy with much narrative explanation. On the other hand, if you like character development, as I do, you might enjoy the book very much. I really felt I came to know not only the main characters (of which there are several) but many of the side characters as well.

Agatha and John are a middle-aged couple with no children. Agatha dotes on her two adult nephews, Hugh and Daniel, who are not brothers but cousins. Hugh is studying to be a doctor; Daniel is a poet. (“No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter,” he says at one point.  (p. 29 of the advance reader copy))

Agatha is a forward-thinking woman who understands that she can most effectively bring about change by working in small ways to alter village life. One such way is to convince the school board to hire a female Latin teacher for the village school. Beatrice, an independent woman who has recently lost both her widowed father and most of her independence, arrives in the summer to tutor three promising young Latin students before the school year officially begins.

The small details woven into the story seemed very true to life. The politics of the local women’s group certainly ran true as well. The author seems to have done her research about the location and time period. The novel reminded me in a good way of the early days of Brideshead Revisited.

I paused a numbers of times to admire a bit of writing I especially liked, such as this passage: “His eyes watched the curl of smoke from the tip of his cigarette paper as he scratched at the itchy wool of his school uniform. He felt the tightness of the hatband around his head, smelled the dry dirt and green cemetery waxiness of the yew. His neck grew hot and his teeth clenched.” (p. 251 of the ARC)

And this exchange between the cousins:
“Youth’s lost companion may be the measured friend of old age, I hope,” said Daniel. “I may write a poem on the subject.”
“Dear God, it sounds more like a cross-stitched pillow than a poem,” said Hugh. (p. 269 of the ARC)
As a single woman with no children but 10 nieces and nephews, I liked that one of the primary relationships was not that of a mother and her children but of an aunt and her nephews. The plot also deals very subtly with the reality of gay couples at a time when same sex love could not be acknowledged.

I cried on and off for the last 30 pages, hoping for certain outcomes but knowing others would be more reflective of real life and would therefore make it a better book. Is the subject matter covered here original? No, but Simonson has covered the topic in a compelling way.

I highly recommend The Summer Before the War for readers who like realistic historical fiction heavy on character development. If you are a fan of Major Pettigrew, you may or may not enjoy this book as well, depending on what drew you to Major Pettigrew. The Summer Before the War contains heartbreak and loss, but handled in a manner that feels truthful.

The Summer Before the War comes out on March 22. The Galesburg Public Library will have copies in large print and regular print.

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