I reserved this book from the public library because I enjoyed Helen Simonson's first book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, so much. I figured The Summer Before the War had a good chance of being good. It is terrific.
In the beginning of the year, when I discovered a book of WWI poetry in Australia, I read many of the poems that inspired Simonson's second novel. The story is moved forward by Hugh, a recently qualified surgeon, and his cousin Daniel, a poet. Enter into their life a new village schoolteacher Beatrice. Their friendship grows as the war begins with the Prussian invasion of Belgium.
Simonson draws a portrait of village life and stock village personalities while developing a compelling love story and the development of her characters under the pressure of war. Her prose drew me in from the first chapter and I spent most of today finishing the novel.
The conclusion is very satisfying. I especially like Daniel's last conversation with Hugh in France. The struggles facing Beatrice in a society that still constricts women is painful to read about, and I had mixed feelings as she wanted her independence and yet clearly a good marriage would save her much grief. There are some hard parts to read when Lord North, a Brigadier General, lets his cruelty run unchecked against his own men and a dog.
I highly recommend reading this book for a satisfying weekend.