It’s nearly 500 pages long—and I flew through Helen Simonson’s second novel set in an English village. I never wanted to put it down. Also, it made me angry (on behalf of a character I loved), and it made me cry a couple times. This is a sign that I was fully invested—in the characters, the story, the milieu. I was right there.
It’s been called in the press “a cure for your Downton Abbey withdrawal,” but I don’t watch television, so that can’t account for my reaction. Here’s the blurb:
East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But … the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.
It was simply good writing, good storytelling. So I knew there’d be plenty for other writers to observe and learn from. Such as:
The novel felt very well researched; it’s rich (rich!) in period detail, yet nothing feels forced in. There are observations about small-town life and the English class structure. It was a society that wasn’t particularly fair for women or homosexuals, and nothing about the time is sugarcoated.
I felt I knew and understood each of the characters, even the unlikable ones. Characters were allowed to develop and grow; their personalities were built layer by layer.
There are three main POV characters, but several other important and peripheral characters whose thoughts we know, so I’d call the point of view omniscient, I think. The handoff from one character to another is very graceful.
Structure and plot
Simonson leaves a scene at exactly the right time, and doesn’t waste time telling us things we don’t need to know. She carefully establishes everything, and then in the final chapters turns it all upside down and lays it bare. Shocking but satisfying.
As a side note, a good friend whose reading acumen I respect did not love The Summer Before the War the way I did. The very things I was charmed by were the things she disliked: “[I] loved many of the characters and the ending satisfied,” she said, “but it took me too long to get emotionally involved.” (Indeed, the Winnipeg Free Press notes the book “meanders …, painting lovely scenic and aural pictures and introducing scores of carefully drawn characters before it even begins to settle down.” See what I mean?)
So should I use this book in my Study This series? Yes. Aside from the things I’ve mentioned, consider theme and style.
Stylistically, The Summer Before the War is a comedy of manners—“an entertainment form which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes,” according to Wikipedia. You know this type of story: you’ve seen it in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Jane Austen’s novels, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the Wooster and Jeeves novels of P. G. Wodehouse, as well as the novels of Georgette Heyer, Nancy Mitford, and Barbara Pym. (I’d even be willing to make a case for Alexander McCall Smith.) My point, though, is this type of story never goes out of style; it can be recast and reset over and over. (Think of the television show Frasier, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Only it’s not a comedy, of course. There are serious themes here: the social class system, women’s rights, criminalization of homosexuality, and the passing of Edwardian England into the modern era. Not to mention that war in the title: “the war to end war.” Consider the examination of these serious themes in the microcosm of an English village, and you’ll understand the level of craft at work in The Summer Before the War.
It made me want to turn back to the first page and start reading again—and that is a worthy goal for an author. Study this!
Tweet: Five #writetips to learn from Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Tweet: This type of story never goes out of style; it can be recast and reset over and over.
Tweet: It made me want to start at the beginning again—a worthy goal for an author. Study this!
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