Stuff and Nonsense: The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson


The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (link to review) remains one of my favorite novels of all time, so it's a little surprising that it's take me this long to get around to her recent The Summer Before the War. To be fair, my thinking went: I was a little worried that TSBTW couldn't compare to MPLS and I would be disappointed and so if I never read TSBTW then I couldn't be disappointed, right?

Silly, silly woman. The Summer Before the War was an excellent read. One of those delightful books I want to press into the hands of everyone I know and inflict upon book clubs. I even (rather desperately) want someone to make a film adaptation à la Merchant Ivory Productions.

It's sweet and witty and sad and just so fucking CHARMING. If you've ever wanted an Anne Shirley, Downtown Abbey, World War I mashup ... this is the book for you. Am I wrong to have imagined Beatrice Nash as a Friend of Anne? A well-educated, young teacher who believes in woman's equal place and making the world better through good(ish) works? Fiercely independent, eminently competent, and yet a little lonely and desperate for bosom companions?

Okay, so I WAS completely smitten with Beatrice. But it's the kind of novel full of interesting characters who are very difficult not to fall at least a little in love with. The only characters I can say I did not like were Mrs Fothergill, (an odious woman), the landlady (ditto) and the Professor (because SPOILERS, but trust me).

Lest you think this book is all sweet and gentle fluff, I will point out that quite a lot of it is about women's rights and class structure. Beatrice can't look after her inheritance, because she is an unmarried lady. She almost loses her job, because she is too attractive. She can't publish her fathers letters, because she is a woman and, therefore, has no authorial authority. Who she dines with, what books she reads, which students she gives extra help to, how much she spends on ladies' incidentals ... Beatrice is judged for all these things and one imprudent choice could cost her her living and place in society.

And then the war happens and so much changes. And so much doesn't. Because People.

I listened to The Summer Before the War on CD, read by Fiona Hardingham. Hardingham did an excellent job distinguishing between the different characters and classes, giving them each their own unique voice so that I was never confused about who was speaking. She also brought appropriate wit and emotion to every scene, giving the the story great immediacy. She made me laugh. She made me cry. She made me sit in my garage for an extra three minutes, because I couldn't bear to not hear just a little bit more.

Definitely recommended.

The Summer Before the War written by Helen Simonson & read by Fiona Hardingham (Random House Audio, 2016)

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