Helen Simonson’s charming debut novel “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” was an instant New York Times bestseller, drawing the highest critical acclaim.
Now, after five years of research and writing, Simonson – a resident of Brooklyn Heights – is releasing today her highly anticipated second novel “The Summer Before the War.”
In an interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Simonson — who has been compared to Jane Austen — says that her latest work, set in the months leading up to WWI and into the war, is about “what people think is important, and what turns out to be important, when life puts you to the greatest of tests.”
Lest the higher themes scare off the less ambitious among us, rest assured that Simonson’s witty portrayals of human foibles, keen eye for small-town grandstanding and subversive sense of humor will gentle the reader along. The atmosphere of “The Summer Before the War” is rich with social manners, garden parties and sly observations, all informed by Simonson’s near-microscopic attention to historical detail.
The story opens in Simonson’s hometown of Rye, England, during the achingly beautiful summer of 1914.
Readers are immersed into the family life of upright medical student Hugh Grange. Hugh is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who (often successfully) maneuvers her way within the tightly-constricted moral standards of the Edwardian period, and her understanding husband John, who works in the Foreign Office.
Hugh’s fate is to marry Lucy, a mental lightweight who is the surgeon’s daughter, and so secure for himself a practice and social status. This, however, was before he meets Beatrice Nash, a pretty, penniless Latin teacher and aspiring writer.
As a woman, Beatrice is considered unfit to manage her father’s inheritance and must battle the era’s standards of proprietary to keep her job at the school. Beatrice is backed in her modest goals by Aunt Agatha, Hugh and his cousin Daniel, a poet who harbors tender feelings towards his dearest male friend.
As the idyllic summer of the book’s opening ends, war breaks out, flags are unfurled, refugees arrive from Belgium and beloved characters appear in uniform. Expectations and priorities shift, while ugly prejudices and social injustices become apparent.
When war “comes down with a hammer,” as Simonson says, the reader is immersed in the misery and absurdity of the front, in battles fought in the time before antibiotics.
By this point, Simonson has stretched what had at first appeared to be a light-hearted comedy of manners into the literature of war, and the center holds.
Simonson said that one of the questions she asked in “The Summer Before the War” was, “When everything really falls apart, what do you grab first, what do you cling to?”
Readers will find that she has answered that question with grace, illumination and sensitivity.