In the summer of 1914, Beatrice Nash arrives in the village of Rye in Sussex to begin work as a Latin teacher for the local grammar school. She immediately falls in with the wealthy, eccentric Kent family, including their two charming nephews – one a doctor, the other a poet. As one might imagine, a romance develops between Beatrice and the young, idealistic doctor, forcing her to confront her hopes for independent spinsterhood and a literary career.
Rye is changing as well. Villagers take in Belgian refugees, confront bicycles and suffragettes, and struggle to overcome both their class and their neighbors’ gossip. As summer ends, young men leave the pastoral beauty of Rye for the trenches of France. Simonson’s vivid descriptions of trench warfare contrast sharply with the peace of life in Sussex and help to strengthen the novel.
In many ways, Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War reads as an episode of Downton Abbey. There are garden parties, country dances, and lots of witty dialogue. However, the looming threat of war, and its reality, elevates the book from imitation to original voice.
Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Book published in 2016