Historical Fiction / Review Requests and ARCs

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summerI wanted to love this book by the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I didn’t love it, a problem I’m having with a lot of books this year. I expected the book to be different from Major Pettigrew, so that wasn’t the problem.  I was disappointed with the lack of character development and the slow pace of the novel.

The story takes place in 1914, in a small coastal English town. Beatrice Nash comes to town to take the position of Latin teacher. She’s mourning the death of her father, and at the same time she’s coming to a town that has rigid ideas about men, women, and society. She does have the backing of one of the town matriarchs, Agatha, and Agatha’s two nephews. Hugh, a surgeon, is the responsible one, and Daniel, a poet, is flighty and emotional.

If these two men seem one-dimensional (they are), Beatrice herself is a nice blend of strong, smart, and stubborn. She struggles to find her way in this very traditional and class-conscious small town. One of her most promising pupils is the son of a Gypsy family, and she has to deal with the town’s prejudice towards these families. In her mid-twenties, she has no interest in marriage, she just wants to make an independent living, and maybe to become a writer one day.

But it’s 1914, which means war is coming. When it does, the town ladies throw themselves into fundraising events and morale-boosters, and the men decide whether to enlist. Surprisingly, this is where the book got really slow. Instead of focusing on the war, Simonson shows us how this small town adjusts to the war; which is interesting, but the book goes on about parades, fundraising and food shortages way too long.

It’s a slow-paced novel, with a bit of a Jane Austen feel to it but without the witty dialogue. I was bothered by the depiction of what might be a romantic relationship between Daniel and his friend, not because I would mind if Daniel were gay, but because Simonson never really goes beyond the surface of this story. Also because Daniel was annoying as a character; he’s self-centered and melodramatic. I wasn’t sure if he was being depicted as a stereotype of a poet or a gay man but both bothered me.

Hugh was more interesting but still pretty flat. He has no character flaws to speak of, except for being rather boring.

As with Daniel, Simonson introduces a number of threads but again doesn’t go beyond the surface. Her story about a Belgian refugee who stays with Beatrice was similarly uncomfortable – Simonson uses this character, like Daniel and the Gypsy boy, to reflect society’s prejudices, but she never explores the girl’s character, or the character of her father. This book would have been better with fewer storylines and a greater focus on its main characters.

I was ready for Simonson to get to the war long before she does. When she does, I found the story much more engaging, even though we lose sight of the female characters altogether. I felt like she pulled it together, except she ends the book on what I felt was a strange note (for reasons I can’t share because it’s the ending).

You can see I was a little disappointed overall. I was hoping for so much more.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Random House in exchange for an honest review. This book will be released on March 22, 2016.

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