Friday, April 1, 2016

A World on the Edge of Destruction

Helen Simonson
Random House
March 22, 2016

It is the summer of 1914 and the world is holding it's breath as Germany invades Belgium. Britain is obligated by treaty to defend Belgium and war seems all but certain. The seaside town of Rye in Suffolk is enjoying a beautiful summer, though, as Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye to take up her post as the new Latin Mistress at the village school. Beatrice is an independent and well-educated young woman who is still reeling from the death of her much-loved academic father. Beatrice had travelled with him and managed his affairs for several years, having lost her mother several years previously. Beatrice now finds herself in straightened circumstances and must earn her own living. Not everyone in Rye is pleased but Beatrice finds an ally in Agatha Kent, a power in the town. Agatha is determined to give her every chance to succeed as the first female teacher; even though Beatrice is much younger and more attractive than expected. 

Agatha's much-loved nephews are visiting for the summer; Hugh Grange, aspiring surgeon, and Daniel Bookham, aspiring poet. Both young men have always holidayed in Rye, considering it more of a home to them than they are offered at their parents' residences. Hugh is the dependable, steady one and Daniel is the one who is emotional and often in trouble of one kind or another. As Beatrice settles into Rye she contends with both the good and bad of small-town life. Pettiness, prejudice, and small-mindedness are in plentiful supply in Rye; along with true kindness. All those attributes come out into the open when an influx of Belgian refugees arrive in Rye. Some townspeople see their arrival as a means to self-aggrandizement while others truly want to help.

I liked Helen Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, very much, but I loved The Summer Before the War. The pace is leisurely, but the book is so beautifully written, with passages of breathtaking beauty. The hearts and minds of every character are revealed in a slow progression, just as it is in the real world. It has been a long time since I ran the gamut of emotions from anger to sorrow to joy so intensely in any book. The world changes completely in the course of the summer and autumn of 1914, and nothing will ever be the same. I finished it in the wee hours of the morning, tissues in hand. The Summer Before the War is a gem; one that I recommend highly. 

Many thanks to Random House and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 5 Stars

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