The Summer Before the War

Written by Helen Simonson
Review by Michael I. Shoop

The highly capable and well-educated Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal village of Rye in Sussex, England, to take up her new post as the first female Latin teacher in the local school in the summer of 1914. As soon as she steps off the train, she finds herself involved in the lives of the village’s various inhabitants, especially those of the thoughtful and eligible bachelor Hugh Grange, his charming and sensitive cousin, Daniel, and Agatha Kent, their kind, reform-minded aunt. With war soon exploding over Europe, the villagers discover they are not immune to the conflict’s harsh sacrifices, as they accept Belgian refugees into their homes and watch as many of their sons march away to fight. And as the Great War envelops them all, tragedy and heartache become unavoidable.

Along with the main story concerning Beatrice’s appointment, her writing ambitions (which must be kept quiet) and the slow-burning romance between her and Mr. Grange, Simonson skillfully interweaves other stories: one involving the lovely but damaged Belgian refugee girl, Celeste, and her distant professor father; another involving Snout, an intelligent boy of a lower-class family who wants to better himself; and an ongoing squabble between Agatha and Bettina Fothergill, the mayor’s wife. Leisurely paced and elegantly written with a keen eye for simple, everyday period details, lively with well-drawn and endearing characters and believable situations, and containing dialogue laced with humor and wit, this will be particularly appreciated by Downton Abbey fans and by readers of gentle chronicles of village life a la Miss Read and Jane Austen. I found it a singularly captivating and engrossing read. Nicely done, Ms. Simonson, nicely done indeed.