The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

 The Summer Before the War cover

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.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand cover

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson was first published in 2010 and it has been popular amongst bloggers which is understandable as it’s an enjoyable read with some great characters.

Major Pettigrew is a 68 year-old widower of some years standing and he has one son who is rather self-absorbed and snooty. When the major’s younger brother dies suddenly it throws him into a bit of a spin. It’s a bit of a wake up call, he should grab life while he can, he has been lonely and he realises that Mrs Ali, the owner of the local shop is becoming more than just a friend to him. Despite being completely different from each other on the surface, the major and Mrs Ali actually have a lot in common, they have a love of books and literature and they were both born in India, the part now known as Pakistan.

Mrs Ali has problems of her own, widowed and childless she really has no standing and respect within her wider family. She is expected to hand over her business with her home attached to it to her nephew, while she moves in as unpaid servant and child/granny minder to her extended family.

With a setting of the Cotswolds and a cast of well recognised local types, gossiping, narrow minded, snooty, racist and bitchy, there’s plenty to entertain you in this book.

The blurb on the front says: ‘A beautiful little love story’ Alexander McCall Smith.

Have any of you read anything else by Helen Simonson?