The Summer Before the War

  • by Helen Simonson
  • Narrated by Fiona Hardingham
  • 15 hrs and 47 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Helen Simonson's beloved New York Times best-selling debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, instantly established her reputation as an uncommonly gifted storyteller, with humor, wit, and a sharp eye for character. Now she returns with an equally compelling work of fiction, one that reaches far beyond the small English village in which it is set.
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.

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What the Critics Say

"At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson's characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset." (Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and coauthor of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society)
"Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime - and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart - reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age - she is that good - and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure." (Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun)
"Narrator Fiona Hardingham breathes life into a huge cast of characters.... She's especially adept with accents; the American author who is trying to downplay his heritage sounds appropriately ambiguous, and a Belgian refugee who speaks halting, heavily accented English is convincing.... This is storytelling at its finest, with a narration to match." (AudioFile)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Not Sure About This Book

I loved the fresh and engaging writing from Simonson's first novel Major Pettigrew and had really high hopes for this book. I have finished several books recently that took a great deal of time before they really took off. In the end those titles were worth the wait. This book has so many five star reviews and encouragements to give it time that I am trying to stick with it--but am really flagging.

My problem lies in the very modern thinking, voices and language used by these characters. I don't think it reflects the way people were or actually spoke in 1914. I have commented about this problem in historic fiction writing before. Others have mentioned it here in reviews of this book as well. The reason I feel this way is that my grandparents were born in the late 1880's, were British and my grandfather fought in WWI. I knew my grandparents really well as they live to be 99 and 100 years old. The way they thought, talked and the vocabulary they used had absolutely nothing in common with the writing of this book. I find this disturbing and it brings much of the story into question for me.

In addition, I am not a fan of the narration so far. I am not willing to give up on the book yet because, as I said at the start of this review, I really loved Major Pettigrew. I am going to put the book aside for a while and then start over in a bit. I will resubmit this review if I have a change of heart after my second attempt at the book. Just be aware--if you are looking for a story with a high degree of historic accuracy I might think again when pondering this title. As I said in the headline--I am not sure about this book.
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- sara "Avid reader/listener/reviewer"

Divine Book Club Listening

Just what I was in the mood for!
"The Summer Before the War" has a little bit of something for everyone. There is sweetness and charm, grit and war, artists and suffragettes, and a whole lot of historical realism. Oh, and a few laugh out loud moments. Oh! And a few lump-in-throat, blink back tears moments too.
While a lot of the book is predictable, the characters are immensely likable without being annoying and "cleverly quirky," and the situations are suitable. This is a book that author Helen Simonson obviously cared about to get right: her characters laugh and suffer, they make hard choices, they live wholly within an era that she draws with details down to a wrapped horse's feet in a funeral cortege. She has a wonderful sense of language and you can almost smell the summer air of a world at peace and feel the bitterness of the cold wind of a world at war.
Beatrice Nash serves as a wonderful heroine, progressive yet not unrealistically individualistic for the time. While she longs to be independent of society's strict rules, she still understands that she must live within the confines of those rules, and acts accordingly. And the book paints a grand portrait of how people lived and breathed within such a set society with lovely glimpses of how others, women in particular, tried to dodge and side-step it all. There is one wonderful scene featuring photography, nudity, and a whole lot of blushing and looking away: simply marvelous!
The weakest bit, and I feel bad saying this, is the narration. Fiona Hardingham does a splendid job considering the length of the book, the many, many characters, and the complexity of the situations, but she fails on a few points. Her American accent is deplorable, her French one is a tad overenthusiastic, her male voices can become flat and strident at times, and a few times she blends the characters so that they are indistinguishable and hard to follow. Still, a 3.5 performance rounded up because, for the most part, she does well with what is a demanding and formidable task.
Also, while the first nine hours of the book are compelling and engaging, the last part is flat-out... well, let's just say that I put off sleeping for a bit of time.
Lovely, heartfelt, bitter and poignant at times, this is a book well worth the time.
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- Gillian "SciFi/Fantasy and Classics to History, Adventure and Memoirs to Social Commentary—I love and listen to it all!"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 03-22-2016
  • Publisher: Random House Audio