Saturday, April 9, 2016

My review of Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War

Brilliant! Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War is an absolutely brilliant depiction of humanity in good times and in bad. In this novel, set in Rye, Sussex, England, the good times are during the summer before World War I and the bad times are in the first year of that war. Well-crafted characters among the families of Rye are characters we all know in our own lives.

There’s the condescending, self-righteous person in power (Mayor Fothergill) and his glory-seeking wife (Bettina), whose ideas so thinly veil self-aggrandizement that Bettina seems the cartoon fool. There are outcasts (Gypsies and free-thinking artists); pitiable social projects (Belgian refugees) whom the wealthy treat as projects, not people; legalists and gossips (a landlady and most of the landed gentry on the refugee aid committee); and society’s unworthy idols (a famous writer and high-ranking military official).

Hopefully, we all also know people like Agatha and John Kent and their nephew Hugh, who see others’ hearts and have the courage to do the right thing for the right reasons. A newcomer to Rye, Beatrice Nash, who has been recruited to teach Latin in a local school, falls in with the Kent family—literally in the story as Agatha takes Beatrice under her wing, and as another character who truly cares for others.

The Summer Before the War has no shortage of intrigue—Agatha’s diplomatic channeling of Bettina’s misguided efforts; the disparate personalities and pursuits of Agatha’s nephews, Hugh, the serious medical student, and Daniel, the flighty poet, their affections and frictions; Beatrice’s troubles with the school board; war’s brewing and brooding over the town; the Kent family’s helping a Gypsy family and the social fallout from their compassion; and romantic question marks hanging over several relationships, to name only a few subplots.

I very much admired the insights and steadfastness of two strong female leads: Agatha and Beatrice. And because this novel took place in 1914–15 and had what I’d call two heroines, the story contained a whole spectrum of prejudice against women, from simple, cultural, gender inequality to downright misogyny. The hardest examples for me to read were the fathers who bequeathed financial and emotional bondage to their devoted daughters either because they valued their own work more than their daughters or didn’t trust their daughters to manage affairs without male supervision. At one point, when she learned that the Kent men had kept from her the fact that Daniel had enlisted for the war, a frustrated Agatha asks, “Why do men presume to know what is best for us?”

As the relatively carefree summer of 1914 fades into war-induced hardships of that autumn and winter, this novel’s tone changes from sunny to stormy. Indeed, the pall of war clouds the spirits of all participants, even as they emerge, still mourning, from witnessed horrors six years later in the book’s epilogue.

When I began reading The Summer Before the War, my heart was light and laughing along with the characters. I was reminded of the delight with which I read and immediately reread Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. When rumors of war hit Rye, I began to feel a bit uneasy, but Rye life’s tone was still relatively light. When bedraggled Belgian refugees trudged into town, my heartstrings sagged, but these people would be cared for by the townsfolk, so all would be well, right? I was naïve about war. Early in the book, Bettina’s selfish foibles were funny. In the presence of Belgians who had been invaded and violated, however, unwitting Bettina went from being a buffoon to being a monster. Suddenly, everything was more emotionally dangerous for everyone. Then came physical casualties and the weariness of living under a suffocating black cloud for four years. As Simonson masterfully takes the reader and Rye from pre-war to post-war, the reader will definitely feel the mood shift from light to heavy.

Not to end on a depressing note, I will say the novel’s ending is satisfying. Beatrice and Agatha are inspiring. And the story is brilliantly told. The writing is magnificent. Bravo to Helen Simonson! Despite the ravages-of-war subject, I sincerely hope you will read this book; it is wonderful.

No comments: