'The Summer Before the War' by Helen Simonson: EW review
When Beatrice Nash arrives in the seaside town of Rye, England, with her bicycle and books in tow, her father has recently died, and WWI is imminent. She’s been hired to teach Latin at the village school by Agatha Kent, an upstanding local woman with firmly held beliefs about gender and social equality who—along with her nephews—befriends the lonely teacher. Beatrice soon dives into village life, with all of its quirks and frustrations, and it’s a rude awakening for a young woman with a liberal upbringing. Accustomed to intellectual work and some measure of autonomy, she chafes at the provincial attitudes of the time: She’s not trusted to handle her own finances or to have the fortitude to discipline her charges the way a male teacher might; she’s on the road to spinsterhood at age 23 but still too young and pretty to be taken seriously.
As Beatrice is faced with these narrow views on the role and value of women, she’s forced to examine her personal history and acknowledge a difficult truth or two; the author allows her protagonist the strength for genuine self-reflection, and her resulting clarity is refreshingly honest. Within the framework of a wartime love story, Simonson captures the contradictions of small-town life perfectly: the idyllic pastimes, the overly involved neighbors, the hints at secrets and unspoken truths. Her tale’s conclusion might be telegraphed from the opening pages, but thanks to a lively tone and sympathetic (though broadly sketched) characters, the journey is a thoroughly enjoyable, addictively readable one. B+