My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Summer Before the War is the first Helen Simonson novel I've read, which puts me at odds with many of the other reviewers who came to this book after reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I liked Summer enough to read Pettigrew and I intend to do so soon. It took a while for me to get into the characters, but once I did, I loved them, especially Beatrice Nash.
The novel is about people trying to live their lives as best they can, finding the right mixture of selflessness and self interest. The Edwardian period in England was a time of change. It was still a society limited by a class system, but the working class was becoming more powerful and the suffragette movement was growing. Because of the setting it is natural that bigotry is a theme. The plight of an intelligent woman trying to live an independent life is important and so is the situation of people born into lower classes, in this case gypsies.
Beatrice, the daughter of a moderately successful writer, is a teacher with aspirations of following in her father's footsteps. However, there are plenty of narrow minded people who don't believe a woman should have any career, especially one requiring the expression of ideas. Meanwhile, her best student is Snout, a gypsy boy with a great gift for many subjects including Latin, which she teaches. He faces the same type of impediment, but for class rather than gender. The book also touches other serious issues I don't want to reveal in a review.
While dealing with the problems of the era in which she lives, Beatrice also deals with relationship issues. She starts out the book thinking she wants a life as a career oriented spinster. But that can't last because she's all too human. This is a wonderful book written about an interesting era and the problems of people who have to live in those interesting times. It's called The Summer Before the War, but the title is a bit deceptive. There are war scenes.
Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
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