Susanita (bardhlul) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

Book 29 - The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

This book was mentioned on a couple different bookriot podcasts and was also featured on my library's summer reading list. I found it to be charming and touching. It starts out a bit slowly as we go through a languid summer, but the action picks up quickly when necessary. Many residents of this little town think that going to war will be a lark and adventure, but they soon learn that there will be hardships and heartaches for the civilians as well as the soldiers. There are also several social issues running through the story that are relevant today -- Belgian refugees who aren't necessarily as grateful and genteel as the town gentry expects, old white men who expect the world to bend to their will just because, and the crushing burden of "keeping up appearances" in the face of idle gossip and old prejudices.

I especially liked the main character Beatrice. She's smart and savvy as she navigates a changing social landscape, making mistakes and learning from them, and she doesn't let herself be a doormat even when it might be to her more immediate advantage.
Tags: historical fiction, war

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