The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

25776122

Pages:  496

Expected Publication:  March 22, 2016

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This historical fiction novel is set in the idyllic countryside of Rye the summer before England enters WW1.  It begins as a comedy of manners as Beatrice Nash arrives at the home of Agatha and John Kent to be the new Latin teacher in Rye.  Agatha’s nephews are there for the summer as well and there develops a romantic interest between Beatrice who has decided not to marry and one of the nephews who had planned on proposing to another woman.  The social milieu of the time is explored throughout this book.   The book explores society’s reaction to divorce, upward mobility, women’s rights, homosexuality, pregnancy outside of marriage (even if the result of rape).    The scope of this book is large.   The reader gets to know the Kents, their nephews, and Beatrice intimately through this novel, as well as their closest friends and associates.  You learn how the politics and society are deeply entangled in the way the town functions and decisions are made.

All plans for the future are turned on their head with the start of the war, however.  First, refugees from Belgium arrive and are taken in by various residents of Rye.  After getting to know and love so many young people in this idyllic setting, the young men begin going off to war.  Some are injured, some are killed; all are affected by the war in different ways.  People come together in ways they wouldn’t have pre-war.  You watch the social fabric and rules start to change in subtle ways.  There is a dramatic shift from prewar to wartime notable in the pace of events.  The speech even changes from verbose to succinct.  As Daniel says to Hugh, “War makes our needs so much smaller.  In ordinary life, I never understood how much pleasure it gives me to see you.”  The characters realize more than ever, through war, what and who is most important to them.

I loved the characters, the hilarity of the social scenes, the budding romance between Hugh and Beatrice.  I loved the social banter, the eloquent wordy ways in which they would argue and criticise each other, especially pre-war.  The characters were very well developed such that I truly cared about them, who they ended up with, and how they fared.  I thought that the contrast between the pre-war scenes and after war was declared very well done.  The final reveal in the epilogue was something I had been wondering the entire book, and I was glad that that piece finally came to light.  I gave this novel  images-2  for a brilliantly written, enjoyable novel complete with family drama, societal etiquette,  romance, and major societal commentaries on the values held by the people in England at the time.

My favorite laugh-out-loud scene in the book is when Agatha Kent and Beatrice Nash are naked sunbathing in Agatha’s garden the morning following Beatrice’s arrival in Rye.

East_Sussex_Map

 

Map of East Sussex, where Rye is

 

 

 

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

 

Map demonstrating the military alliances of the time

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who was your favorite character and why?
  2. Why did you think Agatha Kent favored Daniel over Hugh?  Did this change after reading the epilogue?
  3. How would you describe Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore?
  4. Why does Lord North dislike Daniel?
  5. How would you describe Hugh’s relationship with Lucy Ramsey?
  6. Is the role of social class and standing more or less important in this novel than it is in modern day England?
  7. How would you describe Snout?
  8. Why did the school not want Snout to take the Latin examinations?
  9. Why do you think the Marbely’s felt that Beatrice needed someone to overlook her finances?
  10. What was the common view of the suffragettes?
  11. How does Agatha Kent wield power in this novel?
  12. What are the accepted roles of women in this novel?
  13. Why do you suppose that Celeste’s father sacrificed her to the Germans that were burning their city?
  14. What is the real reason that the German nanny is sent to America?
  15. What is your opinion of Mr. Tillingham?

 

Helen Simonson’s website

New York Times Review

Lit Lover’s Discussion Guide

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