“The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson, Random House, $28, 496 pages, hardcover
My overall feeling about this book is frustration — not because of the author but because of the time period.
Whenever I muse about how much easier my life would be if I was a lady of leisure 100 years ago, I’ll remind myself of this book and quickly be grateful for the way things are today. Trying to make your way through life as an independent woman in the early 1900s was a hard task.
Beatrice Nash is said woman. Her beloved father has died and left all of the money that should be hers in a trust that she does not have access to. She moves to the coastal town of Rye in the summer before the Great War to take a position as a Latin teacher. The characters that fill this town are a highlight of this excellent novel.
Agatha Kent, who hires Beatrice, proves to be a strong and stubborn role model. Her nephews, Daniel and Hugh, become Beatrice’s allies in this town that is frequently at war with itself.
They take her under their wings as the town questions an attractive young woman’s ability to teach Latin effectively.
Beatrice finds a mentor of sorts in the pompous Mr. Tillingham, though she still has to work hard to get him to take her seriously.
An idiotic mayor, his overbearing wife and the assorted townspeople round out the cast of characters, giving the reader the feeling of truly being in a small village. Although they are not particularly likeable, they are a hoot, with stiff politeness hiding their judgmental natures. Luckily, Beatrice can stand up for herself, giving as good as she gets.
The arrival of refugees from Belgium provides another twist, as some of the townspeople are accepting and others look upon them warily.
Hanging over all of the gossip and affairs is the feeling of slow-building panic as the British subjects realize that the war will take their young men, and some of them won’t return.