Show me a historical novel set in England in 1914 and my resistance lasts about as long as if you turned your back and left me in a room with an opened box of chocolates. The ARC of The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, furnished by Net Galley, took me back to that time and place.
The writer’s voice, setting, and characters have that English novel feel. Beatrice Nash arrives in East Sussex after her father’s death to find her way in the world. His encouragement and influence has left her a strong young woman pursuing an unlikely female career as a freethinking Latin teacher with the unladylike desire to write. Conversely, he has left her inheritance tied up with grasping relatives to the point that she is virtually penniless.
The author’s research lends authenticity to the mores of the community and time. In an interview reprinted from Library Journal, which I read after I finished the book, she discusses her portrayal of the Gypsies (Roma) in Rye at the time. As the editor for Amoun Sleem’s memoir, A Gypsy Dreaming in Jerusalem, I was struck with how accurately she portrayed and individualized the Gypsy people in that community, the importance of the role they play in her story, and the honesty of the prejudice against them by most of the locals. Her quote in the interview rang true, “I hoped to highlight that the English Romanies have been part of local history as long as anyone else and that Romany men served their country in the war alongside their fellow British men.”
The Summer Before the War, on sale March 22, is a good read for a day at the beach, an afternoon on the porch swing with rain on the roof, or any day when you’d like to be whisked back into early twentieth century England. Do be aware that the title is a bit of a misnomer since the book goes on past summer – as it should.