By Helen Simonson
The Summer Before the War is a slow burning story of the inhabitants of Rye, England at the outbreak of World War I. Despite the threat of war, in typical British style, the inhabitants of Rye keep calm and carry on. Focusing on the everyday lives of civilians, The Summer Before the War follows a cast of diverse characters as they juggle their everyday lives with the knowledge that death is just around the corner.
These interesting characters all center on Agatha, a formidable matriarch in the small town of Rye. She has much more immediate concerns than war, like the reputation of a young Latin teacher she has taken under her wing. Beatrice Nash, penniless and alone, is ready to live out the rest of her life in spinsterhood as a Latin professor. With Agatha’s help, she settles into her new job while war threatens to draw away her young students.
War looms greater still when Belgian refugees are brought to Rye for safety. The reception of refugees was eerily reminiscent of recent refugee crises. While some people are very open to hosting, there is some hostility among the townsfolk. Hostility or no, the traumas suffered by the refugees brought a new understanding of the war to Rye. As such, Agatha’s two nephews, a poet and a surgeon, start to feel the call to duty.
This book definitely grew on me. It starts rather slowly, setting up all the characters and the dynamics of the town; however, by the second half I was desperate to read the next chapter (and the next, and the next!). Strong female leads, a touch of romance, and British resilience are all on full display, making for an enjoyable and informative read just in time for Remembrance Day.
Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy The Summer before the War for its wide range of characters from different social classes. Both stories delve into how the Great War affected civilian lives in small town Britain, one focusing on before the war, the other focusing on after it!