Monday, May 23, 2016

All's Fair...

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (Random House hardcover, 22 March 2016).

I was enchanted by this story, which takes place in Rye, East Sussex, a town near the coast of England.  

The first people we meet are Hugh Grange, a medical student visiting his his aunt and uncle for the summer, his cousin Daniel Bookham, an aspiring poet, and their Aunt Agatha Kent.  The two young men had spent summers with Agatha and her husband John, a senior official in the Foreign Office. 

They are at once alarmed and in denial about the news that John has just sent Agatha from London:  there will most likely be a war.  Agatha Kent is also on tenterhooks because Beatrice Nash, the young woman who she's recommended for a teaching position at the local school, is to arrive that afternoon.  

This is still a time when female schoolteachers we not so common, especially teachers of Latin.  Even though the Equal Franchise Act, granting women over 21 the right to vote, had been passed in 1928, women were still considered inferior creatures. 

Beatrice Nash's desire to remain unmarried and independent still raised eyebrows amongst the gentry, especially in a relatively unsophisticated town like Rye.  It's considered quite revolutionary that she will be the school's Latin instructor, and Agatha anticipates opposition from some of the stodgier citizens, even though Beatrice has already been hired.

We are astonished, as always, by the eagerness of young men to enlist, and empathize with those who know how little glamour is involved but are unable to prevent them.  

Simonson completely immerses the reader in English country life at the brink of the First World War; it's truly as though one were there.  But despite the wretched circumstances, there is something lovely about this story, and one feels a sense of hope at its conclusion.

FTC Full Disclosure:  My sincere thanks to Library Journal for sending me an Advance Reading Copy of this novel.  

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