Monday, May 9, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War: A Novel by Helen Simonson --- 479 pages

The second effort by the author who received popular and critical acclaim for her debut novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010) is evidence that Simonson is no flash in the pan.

Both Major Pettigrew and The Summer Before the War demonstrate that the "novel of manners"   should not be dismissed as the relic of a quaint and distant past, as Simonson applies her well-honed pen to the dissection of English village life with all the aplomb of a reincarnated Jane Austen. Indeed, Simonson channels the Austen spirit far more successfully than any of the uninspired offerings of HarperCollins' Jane Austen Project.

In this new book Simonson examines the impact of the First World War on the twilight years of the British Empire. She sets her story in the East Sussex coastal town of Rye (the town in which the author herself grew up, although long after the time period of her novel), where life is exceedingly pleasant for those with a comfortable income, while those without such comfort are expected to know their place and "cultivate an attitude of grateful subordination" towards their betters.

Into this setting Simonson introduces her heroine, Beatrice Nash, a young woman with too much intelligence and too little income to fit into the hierarchy of Rye. Forced by the death (and lack of foresight) of her father to earn her own living, Beatrice has been hired --- with some misgivings --- by the governors of the local grammar school to teach Latin to the children of the town. But the war looming on the horizon is about to come roaring down on all of comfortable sureties of England and Empire, and those who survive will find the world changed beyond recall.

Click HERE to read the review in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Click HERE to read the review from National Public Radio (NPR).

Click HERE to read the review in the Washington Post.

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