Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

"I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher." 

On the eve of WWI, with the death of her scholar father, Beatrice must find her way in the world and accepts a position as Latin teacher in Rye, England. Used to traveling across Europe and staying in top-notch hotels, she is reduced to three pair of gloves, a shabby room, and one hot bath weekly. To keep her position she must battle prejudice and ancient class snobbery. Beatrice is intelligent and highly educated. And vastly under valued and unappreciated. Her new world is peopled by two young men, cousins and best friends although opposites, grand dames who rule society, and powerful titled men willing to do anything to protect their "good name".

I was swept into the novel, in love with the Austenesque quips and nods. "A country living room holds no terrors for me," Beatrice remarks. Beatrice has much in common with Fanny in Mansfield Park in her worthiness and powerlessness. A proposal scene matches the ridiculous Mr. Collins or Rev. Elton. True love grows between friends who are perfect equals. It begins a novel of social manners, which I dearly love to read.

Then war breaks out. The horrors of war come to reside in their village. Men are pressured to enlist by white feather-bearing girlfriends, fathers, and career mentors. Grand houses are prepared for hospitals, but only to house convalescents of the best quality. The city provides for Belgium refugees including a professor and his beautiful daughter Celeste, who are much lionized. While Beatrice is socially alienated, Celeste is smothered with dresses and invitations.

The final indignation comes when the publisher refuses to allow Beatrice to write the book about her father's work and gives her manuscript to a male writer. She had hoped to earn a little income from the book and begin a career as a writer.

Although very entertaining, the plot develops slowly as Beatrice endeavors to make it on her own. In the middle the plot leveled off and was not progressing, but part four was a roller coaster ride. The role of women, class prejudice, and the ill conceived idealization of war are addressed. Additionally, darker aspects of life 100 years ago appear when Celeste's victimization in war makes her a social pariah and the deep bound between two college chums brings forced separation, with tragic results.

The world of 1914 is presented in detail and will delight historical fiction fans. Set 100 years after Jane Austen, and 100 before the present day, one can note that class and gender issues have advanced more in the last 100 years than in the previous century. The Great War altered the world irrevocably, for better and worse.

I received a free ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Advance praise:
Annie Barrows (The Truth About Us and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) : "At once haunting and effervescent...as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset."
Paula McClain (The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun) :"...[a] radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand..vividly drawn...like a Jane Austen for our day and age, she is that good..."

The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
Random House
Publication: March 22, 2016
$28.00 hard cover
ISBN: 9780812993103