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I love reading a book that tells a good story without finding it necessary to use gratuitous sex, slang or curse words!

The Summer Before the War: A Novel - Helen Simonson

I enjoyed this book immensely. The prose alone was worth the read. The story will tug at your heart strings as it takes you down memory lane into the world of England with its proper manners, pomp and circumstance in the early 20th century. It is told in four parts, by a wonderfully gifted author whose last book “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” charmed me as well. It begins just before WWI and immerses the reader into the very proper and quiet life of Rye, a community very much aware of class distinction and a woman’s place in the world. Using vocabulary that is descriptive, civilized and literary, the reader will not be subjected to any over-the-top, possibly inappropriate descriptions of sex or of foul language so common in many popular books of today. For that reason alone, I found the book quite refreshing.
Readers might be pleasantly reminded of Downton Abbey and even find similarities in some of their character traits. I was reminded of Lord Grantham and Countess Cora Grantham, Lady Mary and Lady Edith, and the maid Daisy,  just to name a few. John Kent holds a high position in the foreign office, and as such was privy to information not yet available to the general public concerning the coming war. His wife, Agatha, quietly promoted women’s rights without offending the powers that be. She worked through proper channels, gently manipulating others to get her way. She had been able to secure a Latin teaching position for Beatrice Nash who had suddenly found herself in need of employment after the death of her father, a man of some minor fame as an author. Daniel Bookham, a poet, and Hugh Grange, training to be a surgeon, were nephews of the Kents. Beatrice’s job and future were on the line and they all became the greatest supporters of  her endeavors.
When Beatrice had first arrived in the town of Rye, she was expected to be unattractive and spinsterish. Her finer appearance both concerned and surprised many. Unmarried women were frowned upon and dependent on the kindness of other, especially if they had no visible means of support. Beatrice’s had been her father’s assistant and was brought up to be independent. Suddenly, with his death, she had been thrust into a world in which others would oversee her finances and lifestyle. She would no longer be able to manage her own affairs and would not fully inherit until she married. This was, a state to which she did not aspire, and she was surprised by her father’s actions.

To complicate life in Rye, there was the murder of the heir-apparent to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Franz Joseph and his wife, in Sarajevo. This caused great turmoil as WWI loomed on the horizon. Enormous changes were coming. Rationing was expected as well as a demand for soldiers to defend England. Hoarding was frowned upon. The town of Rye and its surrounding residents were thrown into a frenzy trying to figure out appropriate ways to help in the service of their country. Some enlisted, some knitted socks, some passed out white feathers to those who shirked their duty, and some housed soldiers and refugees from Belgium after it was invaded by Germany. The inappropriate behavior and expectations of some citizens demonstrated that they had lost themselves in the nitty-gritty of position and class and tended to forget the cost of war for its victims. They tended to forget compassion in their need to stand on ceremony.

The story will sometimes make you smile and sometimes bring a tear to your eye, but it will always be a good read. The pages will fly by as you are immersed in the countryside, on the battlefield and in the life of the upper class and working class of England at a time when class and birth were still of the utmost importance, when change was resisted first and foremost and protocols had to be followed.

There are some contrived moments with problems serendipitously solving themselves, but they work well for the tale. The prose is sharp and the dialog between the characters is refined even when words are used to cut like ice picks. The historic background, including the need for strict adherence to rules regardless of the circumstances, illustrated how those in charge subjected those beneath them to cruelties and exposed the fragility of life and the stupidity of war which is often conducted by ill prepared or improperly trained men and women..

The book uses a subtle wit, genuine romance and the terror of war in the telling of the story as it exposed the differences in the lives of those living in poverty and those living with wealth. Both the gentry and the working class in their expectations and approach to their futures is well defined and obvious. The unfairness of the system may rankle some readers as they observe that the design of the class system actually prevented the advancement of the working class even when qualified and intellectually able to move ahead. There are characters whose snobbish behavior will offend, like Mrs. Fothergill, Professor Fontaine, and Mrs. Turber, as well as characters whose innocence and charm will endear them like, Hugh, Snout and Celeste! War affects those with or without the refinement imposed by birth and background. All equally suffer. However, the humor that infused the tale, as the idiosyncrasies and snooty reactions of the characters were highlighted in all avenues of life, worked to make the tale even more enjoyable.