This was a book that grew on me as I read it. At first I liked it, then I liked it a lot, and by the end I was in tears and completely engrossed in it.
The Summer Before the War begins almost light-heartedly in the summer of 1914, when Beatrice Nash arrives as the new Latin teacher in the English town of Rye. Hiring a woman to teach Latin is a bit of a bold move, not to mention a young woman who rides her own bicycle and is determined to be independent. The early parts of the novel have very much the feel of a comedy of manners and a gentle romance, but these are, as we know from the title, the last weeks of the old Edwardian world, and everything is about to change forever.
In fact, the title is a bit misleading, because most of the novel’s action takes place after the August declaration of war. Belgian refugees arrive in town, and the young men of Rye enlist in the military — including two of the man characters, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, nephews of the delightful Mrs. Agatha Kent. The point of view shifts around among several key characters but comes back most often to Hugh and Beatrice, two young people whose views of what constitutes a good life are deeply challenged by the changes that war brings.
I found this novel felt more authentic than a lot of historical fiction in adequately representing the attitudes of the time — towards a single woman’s independence, towards a divorced and remarried couple, towards a pregnancy outside marriage (no matter the circumstances of conception), and towards homosexuality (which hovers as an issue in the background of much of the novel without any character ever once coming out and saying in plain language what they’re talking about — which is of course entirely appropriate for people of that social background at that time). We modern writers, writing about the lives of people a century ago, often gloss over the differences in attitudes and don’t seriously grapple with how great the pressure of social disapproval was on issues like these. Although the language is contemporary and easy to read, The Summer Before the War sometimes felt more like a novel written in the early 20th century, rather than a modern novel about that time, since it seemed to me to reproduce so convincingly the social world of pre-war, small town England.
In a novel full of young men of military age, set in the dawning days of the Great War, a reader would be foolhardy indeed to expect that every character is going to make it safely to the epilogue, and indeed I was speculating early on as to who was doomed to die in battle. Even so, I did not expect to find the ending as emotional as I did. It’s not often I actually cry while reading a book, but here, I did. I found every relationship in the book absolutely believable and all the characters deeply engaging, and it will probably be one of my favourite reads of this summer.