Monday, February 8, 2016

The Summer Before the War

Title:  The Summer Before the War
Author:  Helen Simonson
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 496 pages.
ISBN:  0812993101 / 978-0812993103

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slating evening light."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is too precious to waste it anymore with etiquette."

Too much of a good thing is sometimes an amazing thing. Sometimes, it is just too much. That is about my reaction to The Summer Before the War. I love Helen Simonson's writing. The English countryside and the time period of the beginning of the World War provide a setting with a lot of fictional possibilities. The cast of characters of a family of means, the village surrounding them, and an impoverished young woman who enters their domain is a familiar one.

Helen Simonson's writing submerges the reader into the world of East Sussex, England. It conveys the issues of social classes, prejudices, women's independence, and World War I. The best and the worst part of it is the fact that it all sounds familiar. That is great for, as a reader, I can relate to the challenges faced by some of the characters and the emotions felt.

That is not so great for, as a reader, throughout the book, I feel as if I have read it before. Here is a small English village very set in its ways with the ladies of the village vying for power and position and all the gossip and machinations that involves. Within the village is the aristocratic family, with a  lady of the manor somewhat progressive in her ideas. Within the family are two young gentlemen although nephews not sons in this case. Hugh Grange is the one turning his back on his aristocratic upbringing to take on a career in medicine. Daniel Bookham is the rakish toff with the heart of a poet. Into their midst comes Beatrice Nash, recently orphaned and now forced to make her own way in life as a teacher. A myriad of other characters, at times too many, surround these main ones. Layered on that are the changes that war brings to all their lives. It all sounds familiar and already done; I wait for a unique twist on this theme, but that seems missing.

On top of that, all of these aspects are very slowly developed in close to five hundred pages. So, the book takes too long. It is a somewhat entertaining read, but it lacks the depth of character and story to keep me engaged for that long. After a while, I find myself skimming through some of the details to gather up the salient aspects of the plot. I find myself digging to see if the characters develop in a way as to take this period piece into more of a deeper character study, but that too does not come.

The one deeper issue that the book gets to through several different characters is the role of women in that society, whether that is Agatha who works within the system, whether it is Beatrice who by her chosen profession and independence brings change, or whether it is Celeste whose drama brings in the societal pressures at work in a woman's life. This issue, further developed, would give the book a much greater depth. As it is, it just seems to simmer amongst all the rest. Again, interesting but not memorable.

The book has all the elements to make me fall in love with it, but I don't. I enjoy it, but somehow I don't think it will stay with me. I will wait to see what Helen Simonson writes next to see if the story matches the strength of her writing.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment