At it’s core, The Summer Before the War is a story about an intelligent and worldly young woman, who after losing her father (whom she accompanied on his many adventures) begins one of her own. Beatrice Nash, the previously mentioned young woman, arrives in Rye ready to teach her new young pupils Latin. Fiercely independent, Beatrice longs to become a published author and a scholar, to take after her father in ways that weren’t yet afforded to women in 1914.
Miss Nash’s arrival is championed by Agatha Kent, whose husband holds a position in the Foreign Office. Agatha, the matriarch of the Kent family, is an amazing and deep character; a woman who is both strong and tender, who wishes only the best for the ones she loves, but who may sometime go after her own wishes for them over their own desires. She injects life into every situation; she’s the woman who owns the room, but somehow makes you feel confident. More than anything, Agatha loves and adores her nephews Hugh Grange (a surgeon in training) and Daniel Bookham (a poet). While I adored Beatrice and her quiet strength, Agatha is a character for the ages.
Agatha risks her earned social standing to ensure Beatrice’s hiring. A woman as a Latin teacher, especially one so young and attractive, is seen as a huge risk. Luckily, the summer proceeds wonderfully for all, with beautiful weather and only a few speed bumps. It all changes when school starts and Belgian refugees begin arriving. World War I breaks out and wakes up the sleepy town of Rye, and with this awakening comes the realization of how petty the problems of the privileged, when faced with the cruelty of war.
Each richly developed, incredibly interesting character must face their own battle, some in war zones, some tucked “safely” in East Sussex. Feeling the emotions from the character’s points of view is incredibly impactful. Covering a range of emotions, from the searing pain of loss to the butterflies of falling in love, and pulling you into each situation makes you feel as though these characters are your friends. Even with minor characters, such as Beatrice’s foil Lucy and the Virgil loving Snout, Helen Simonson does a wonderful job with The Summer Before the War, so much so that it has joined the ranks of my favorites. I can’t think of any book I’ve read recently that I would recommend more highly than The Summer Before the War.