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Review: The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2017. 479 pp. $28

That last, idyllic English summer of 1914, Hugh Grange, a young medical student, has come to rural Sussex to visit his beloved Aunt Agatha and Uncle John. As the protegé of a famous surgeon who has all but invited him to marry his pretty daughter, Hugh may be forgiven for thinking he has the world on a string. However, two obstacles emerge to his plans.

Obviously, one is the coming conflict, of which just about everyone remains blithely ignorant in this lovely town of Rye. The other is Beatrice Nash, a young woman hired to teach Latin at the Rye grammar school, a subject traditionally a male preserve. She owes her job to Aunt Agatha, a closet feminist but no “suffragette,” who has politicked, plotted, and flattered to get the old-boy network to accept her protegée. Beatrice is intellectual, serious, and a freethinker–much like Hugh–whereas the surgeon’s daughter is a flirt, a twit, and a social climber. So there’s even less doubt whom he’ll prefer than what’s about to happen to Europe.

That predictability plagues much of The Summer Before the War. Simonson sets her battle lines right away, so that you can tell the good guys from the bad guys, or, when there’s less question of good versus bad, who’ll survive and who won’t. Her upper-class characters are completely detestable, but they’re stick figures, mere attitudes on two legs, and therefore easy targets. To cast doubt on what seems ordained, Simonson employs the “no–and futhermore,” often with skill, but toward the end especially, the story feels contrived and resolutions too neat. It doesn’t help that the novel has one or two superfluous subplots.

But to give The Summer Before the War the credit it deserves, Simonson has a knack for social conflict, and she portrays the pecking order of Rye with wit and verve. The never-ending battle against small-mindedness, gossips, sexism, and class snobbery consumes much energy in these pages, and the repartée between Hugh and his rakish cousin, Daniel, makes fun reading. (It’s a bit surprising how neither young man seems to have a home other than that of their aunt and uncle, but I’m glad they don’t.)

Rye Grammar School, which last held classes in 1907, as it appeared in 2010 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Beatrice’s struggles are more compelling. She has to play the upright spinster so that the school worthies will hire her, because only a young woman of irreproachable character may come in contact with impressionable youth. Meanwhile, of course, said worthies have nothing but contempt for these lower-class children and would never lift a finger to help them, whereas Beatrice actually believes she can bring light into their lives. Further, having catered to a domineering, scholarly father who has recently died, Beatrice should, in theory, have her meager inheritance, but (male) trustees prevent her from touching it. They, and others, assume that a “girl” of twenty-three can’t be independent without losing her virtue, a criticism that extends to her desire to write books. These are the parts of The Summer Before the War that I like best.

But I like the humor too. Consider this description of an oak-paneled anteroom:

. . . between two large windows, an imposing, green malachite bust of Cromwell on a matching plinth so floridly carved with vines and flowers that Cromwell himself would surely have had it destroyed. Hugh was not familiar with any connection of the Earl North family to Cromwell. Perhaps, he thought, there was none and that was why the ugly heirloom had been consigned to oaken purgatory to intimidate unwanted guests.

The Summer Before the War unfolds at a leisurely pace, for the most part. I don’t mind that, and I regret that so few authors these days tell stories that way; they probably figure their readers won’t have the patience. They may be right, but I don’t think length is the problem. It’s depth. We That Are Left and A Gentleman in Moscow, for instance, succeed by showing their characters’ inner lives so thoroughly that I don’t care how many pages go by. Conversely, when Simonson narrates an intricate story with half-full characters whose inner lives she tells in shorthand (“he felt such-and-such”), that’s when I become conscious of page numbers.

I don’t mean to blame Simonson or single her out; I happened to read her at a moment when I’m redefining my standards. Many, if not most, novelists follow some version of what she does, which for me these days means that I can borrow a stack of promising books from the library and find only one or two that intrigue me past the opening pages. The Summer Before the War would have pleased me more had the author plumbed her main subject and characters to the greater depth.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.