The Summer Before the War – Helen Simonson

Source: Goodreads


Accepting the position of smalltown Latin teacher was a no-brainer for Beatrice Nash. Finally on her own, she can’t wait to make her own money and get out from under her stifling family’s thumb and her father’s shadow. But war is looming. A great, big, world war, the likes of which have never been seen. With men signing up left and right, it’s only a matter of time before Beatrice’s students and colleagues start to head for the continent, closely followed by the new officers comprised mostly of the lesser gentry. A young surgeon and a poet, a Romani and a scholar, the war keeps its distance from no one. And so beings the summer before the war.


Helen Simonson does it again. The author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – one of my favorite reads of 2017 – is back with another well-developed look at England’s less viewed history, and hits her mark. The characters are well developed and engaging, as well as incredibly refreshing. A book about an Edwardian surgeon! The first women authors! Single women living alone and working a respectable job! POETS. and so, so many underlying narratives about race and sexuality. Absolutely wonderful. 10/10 would read again.

I would like a prequel about Beatrice’s life with her father and then with her Aunt. Also, a novel purely about Aunt Agatha and her husband who works for the foreign office and who I am sure does spy things. I think they’re all just so interesting!

The book itself starts out relatively lighthearted, following the main premise of Beatrice settling into the town and her interactions with the townsfolk. About 3/4 of the way through, the war is finally upon us, with dire consequences for many. Simonson wraps everything up neatly, but not before she rips our hearts out and forces us to acknowledge that not everyone can live happily ever after.


HHC Rating: 5 Stars


Other reviews for works by this author:
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand – Helen Simonson


Source: Goodreads

Major Ernest Pettigrew, Royal Sussex, Retired. So our unlikely hero introduces himself. The Major is one of the last of England’s distinguished gentlemen, living in the family cottage on the rim of the sleepy village of Edgecombe St. Mary near England’s southern shores. Until now he has fiercely protected his quiet and peaceful life, avoiding involvement in town committees and other people’s personal business in general. The death of his younger brother, however, jolts the Major back to reality and he is forced to acknowledge that he is lonely and aging.

Mrs. Jasmina Ali inherited ownership of the village shop in Edgecombe St. Mary when her beloved husband passed away, but she has never felt quite at home in the small town. When she comes upon Major Pettigrew in his time of need, something sparks between them, and the ensuing challenges shape their lives and the livelihood of the village they call home.

Simonson writes small town life in Edgecombe St. Mary so well that I could almost smell the cold morning frost, see the chalky cliffsides, and feel the sea breeze as it gusted over the green. She creates characters that are complex and realistic. There are no special snowflakes in this story, as even the best of characters have flaws they don’t always recognize. A narrative on racial, religious, and generation gaps, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand breathes fresh life into a grey world focused on stereotypes and hierarchies.

Although the first chapter or two felt a little slow, I became used to pacing that felt as though it ran at the rate of Pettigrew’s thoughts. The reader often knows things as the Major does, which was refreshing in a world of books where teasing asides often allude to plot direction before characters are aware of what’s happening.

The narratives on generation, religious and racial differences are accompanied by themes of etiquette and ethics, as well as the growing threat of progressive foreigners seeking to line their own pockets. Still, the many facets of the plot fit together like a 3D puzzle, each snugly sitting next to each other until everything becomes intertwined and dependent on one another. A fascinating read, and one I enjoyed immensely.

Recommended if you enjoy diverse books, light romance, small town politics, or anything about Britain.

HHC Rating: 4.5 stars