Book Review: The Summer Before the War

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Forgive me a moment, as I need to wrap my arms around this book in a giant, warm, and loving embrace. Sigh. What a great, sweeping, epic and wonderful read. What a wonderful book to read over the summer!

The Summer Before the War appeared here in my Summer Reading 2016 list, and I couldn’t be happier about the decision to have reached for this first, after completing my commitments to read (six) books for two blog tours. Initially, (allow my babble for a moment) I was “supposed” to read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. While it is indeed a book I truly do want to read, the biggest reason for reading it above any other at this time, would have been for the Goodreads CBC Books Bingo Challenge. Unfortunately, my wonderful co-moderator Jennifer and I were tasked with closing down the CBC Books on Goodreads last month. Therefore, any commitment to continuing with the Bingo Challenge fairly vanished, leaving Simonson’s novel calling to me more forcefully. (And, perhaps, I also didn’t want to have the group and its closure hanging over my head all the while when reading A God in Ruins.)

Well, didn’t The Summer Before the War  leave me suffering from a serious book hangover, and all teary-eyes as well. For a book that is over 450 pages, I could easily have read 150+ more. Simonson swept me away with her easy and effortless writing and leaving a group of characters that I now sorrowfully miss. Oh how I wished I hadn’t finished reading this wonderful story, so then I would still be with them.

What a wonderful book to have spent the holiday weekend with (Happy Canada Day)!  My entire weekend was spent outside on the patio, fully immersed in it. The Summer Before the War is the kind of book that takes some time before fully returning to reality.  There were times when the novel felt beautifully cinematic, and I could easily see myself completely enjoying this story unfold on the big screen. The characters, the setting, the time, the place – everything would make for a cinematic triumph! There are of course, given its time period and people involved, comparisons made to Downton Abbey, and while yes, some similarities can be drawn, I can’t help but think Simonson is much too clever and too sophisticated to write a copy-cat book that rides its coattails. She has written a stand-on-its-own triumph.

Beatrice Nash has arrived in the town of Rye to take up a teaching position for Latin studies, in the local grammar school. She is to replace the recently departed teacher, however, the town and the school’s Board of Directors aren’t quite sold on the hiring of a female teacher, and certainly not for a position long and historically held by men. Here is where Agatha Kent, the well-respected matriarch of the town, comes in to help Beatrice navigate these boggy waters and ensure her placement is handled properly. Agatha also has two nephews, whom she adores  (you will too!), and they both feature decidedly in Beatrice’s life as well. (And oh how I miss Daniel and Hugh!)

Yet, at the start of this summer, there are far greater and more pressing issues the town is grappling with than the placement of a female teacher, as the rumblings of war are beginning to be heard everywhere. Simonson takes us on an epic journey through the summer before, during and after the Great War, where the devastation of war tests this small town and its inhabitants. She also skillfully summons us to not wax nostalgic for this time period, most especially for women and their (lack of) rights. She deftly weaves so many examples of the inequality directed towards women, and their inability to make their own decisions, be responsible for their own financial affairs and that it they reside firmly in a man’s world.  Overall, masterful storytelling all around! Grand, romantic, comedic and epic storytelling!

Thank you Penguin Random House Canada for sending the Advanced Reading Copy. I will cherish and more than likely track down a finished copy so it may sit proudly on my bookshelf. So, so much love for The Summer Before the War!  And…a good kick in the pants to finally read (or as Hoarder Elizabeth says, listen to – ) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand has been sitting on my Kobo for years!)

I’ve also read in many of the reviews for The Summer Before the War, the feeling it is very similar to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Looks like I’ll be adding this classic to my collection to read quite soon now! (or do I commit to the audiobook? [almost 36 hours in length!] Juliet Stevenson reads it, and her narration is divine.)

Literary Hoarders Penny