Overly twee, formulaic, dross

Helen SimonsonThe 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.

13 thoughts on “Overly twee, formulaic, dross

  1. Christy April 25, 2016 / 5:29 pm

    I couldn’t get into Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – something about how the secondary characters were drawn up, I think, annoyed me. Can’t remember now. And I also felt the “trying too hard” vibe from the initial Maisie Dobbs book (haven’t read any others.) Along the same veins, I remember reading Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, set in the 1920’s and it was definitely trying too hard. It also had a strong resemblence to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin in terms of plot and also to Downton Abbey. Turns out the the author’s notes at the end cited Gosford Park (with script by Fellowes) and The Blind Assassin as influences.

    I did enjoy that potato peel pie book though.


  2. Travellin'Penguin April 25, 2016 / 7:26 pm

    I find more and more I am bored by contemporary authors trying too hard to be cute or clever. I prefer the older books before 1970 or so. This sounds like another poor relative.


  3. Claire (The Captive Reader) April 25, 2016 / 8:14 pm

    Yay! Someone else who didn’t like this. I muddled my way through it, having also been enticed by the first few, promising chapters, only to find it completely underwhelming. It was so predictable and slight and dull.


  4. Kate W April 26, 2016 / 2:00 am

    Nothing worse than historical fiction where you feel that the author has used every single fact they discovered in their research, for the sake of using it. Excruciating. I call it ‘historical name-dropping’ (and avoid it like the plague). Thanks for your honest review, I’ll be giving this one a miss.


  5. biggardenblog April 26, 2016 / 2:11 am

    The reference to Downton Abbey says it all. Denise and are Brits, of course, but in case you don’t know this, Downton Abbey is utterly reviled in the UK – and the objections are exactly the same as those you have for this offering from Helen Simonson. This one is for my ‘to avoid’ list!


  6. Desperate Reader April 26, 2016 / 5:52 am

    I haven’t read any of those for just the reasons you describe, there’s plenty of actual vintage fiction around without the ersatz stuff which I find does nothing for me, but does feel like it’s being marketed in my direction. At least this post has made me decide to read something contemporary today.


  7. Cindyf April 26, 2016 / 7:07 am

    How I love a witty, snarky review – yet another book I don’t feel compelled to add to the pile. Shan’t even bother with the Pettigrew one now – agreed about the name. To the charity shop it goes – thanks Thomas! Yes re Biggardenblog’s comment – Brit feeling was that Downton started well but was trotted out well after it had lost its watchability.


  8. Fenella April 26, 2016 / 11:35 am

    I was skipping your review until you mentioned you were bitchy about it in your tweet. I do love a good bit of bitching.

    Conversely, do you ever read a contemporary novel (i.e. written in the 1910s etc) but find it doesn’t do much to evoke the era? That, in the absence of a publishing date (and googling it), you read on trying to figure out what date the novel’s setting is and when it was written? I found that with The Fortune of Christina McNab, an old book i found in a shop somewhere which ended up being turn of the century, but seemed generic Victoriana for a really long time.


    • Thomas March 31, 2017 / 10:33 am

      I have run into many a “timeless” book that has me checking and re-checking the publication date. I also love your name. Makes me think of Fenella Woolgar and her amazing character in Bright Young Things.


  9. Liz Dexter April 26, 2016 / 4:22 pm

    Ha – I hated that potato pie book, I’ve just read Fiction Fan’s review of it and quoted my own review, which patronised while calling the book patronising. I’ll deffo give this one a miss!


  10. Susan in TX April 27, 2016 / 10:13 pm

    I love honest reviews! I won’t be tempted by this one now. I liked Major Pettigrew overall, but felt the ending was a little rushed and sort of “made for TV.”


  11. Simon T April 30, 2016 / 9:08 am

    I gave up on the Pettigrew book – I decided that I’d rather read something from the period.


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