The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
I quite liked Simonson’s first novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Although I remember thinking at the time that the title was a cheap attempt to cash in on the popularity of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I really don’t think the use of the surname was a coincidence. Major Pettigrew, while enjoyable, seemed designed to manipulate. Like that potato peel pie book—I enjoyed it, but it was clear the author set out to pander to a certain type of reader (me).
But who am I am to shy away from a bit of pandering? It was in that spirit that I picked up The Summer Before the War and for the first several chapters I was not disappointed. And then the horrible specter of Downton Abbey started to creep in. It all just started feeling way too expected and formulaic. It was as if Simonson got a hold of Julian Fellowes’ checklist of obvious WWI-era clichés and made sure she put a tic in every box. White feathers, telephones, suffragettes, photography—oh my how new and unexpected in these period times!
And then she thought, hmm, E.F. Benson sure has a loyal following desperate for all things Mapp and Lucia. Maybe if I set the novel in Rye and included endless pages about tableaux vivant, I could tap into that market. Her depiction of the society lady sun bathing in the nude also made me think of Lucia and her calisthenics in her bathing costume.
I found myself just wanting it all to be over. There was nothing unique about Simonson’s characters or plot. And it seemed like there were lots and lots of details that only existed to appeal to people with a penchant for ye olde times. Despite the fact that I am one of those people, I find that living authors try too hard when trying to evoke an era. They seem to feel the need to make sure they mention every little detail in a way that E.F. Benson, or E.M. Forster, or anyone else writing in the period, never would have. (I felt that same way about the one Maisie Dobbs’ mystery I read.)
I was also a bit annoyed that unlike the title suggests, the majority of the action takes place during the war itself. And why couldn’t our heroine Beatrice have been a little less boring? Short shrift is given to her successes and failures as Latin master which the opening chapters of the book suggest is going to play a significant role. Instead it is just a clumsy ruse Simonson uses to get Beatrice to Rye.
In fact, everything about this book felt like a clumsy ruse.