I really enjoyed Helen Simonson’s book Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand recently so I decided to read her new one The Summer Before the War. It’s quite a chunkster at 580 pages and when I got it from the library I was a bit daunted because I have so many books to read, but the print is quite big so it didn’t take me as long as I thought it would to read it. I can’t say that I enjoyed this one as much as Major Pettigrew though, and I was slightly disappointed that it was so radically different from her first book, but it did grow on me.
The setting is Rye, East Sussex, 1914. That summer was of course a famously beautiful one. Hugh and Daniel are cousins who have a close relationship with their Aunt Agatha and Uncle John, a childless couple who are well-heeled, John is something big in the Foreign Office and so is party to all of the political goings on between Britain and Germany.
Agatha has persuaded the local school board to employ a young woman to teach Latin, but this has made Agatha some enemies. It’s a godsend though for the teacher Beatrice Nash who has been left with virtually nothing to live on after the death of her father as he had not trusted her with the control of her inheritance from him, and has tied it all up under the control of unsympathetic relatives.
As war becomes a reality the town becomes a safe harbour for Belgian refugees, but not everyone is welcoming and it transpires that one young woman has suffered more than others from the attentions of German soldiers.
The subject matter is of course a lot heavier than the first Simonson book and I felt that this book dragged slightly towards the middle, but that may just have been because I didn’t have so much time for reading for a while and didn’t get through it as quickly as I would have liked. In fact the themes of the book are very similar to those of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, they’re just taking place 100 years earlier. There are some really good characters though.
Snobbery, racism, prejudice, bitchiness, family strife – all the usual nastiness that goes to make up almost any society of human beings in fact – appear in each of Helen Simonson’s books. I enjoyed it, just not as much as her first book.