Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Helen Simonson - The Summer Before the War

It is late summer in East Sussex, 1914. Amidst the season’s splendour, fiercely independent Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal town of Rye to fill a teaching position at the local grammar school. There she is taken under the wing of formidable matriarch Agatha Kent, who, along with her charming nephews, tries her best to welcome Beatrice to a place that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of female teachers. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For the unimaginable is coming – and soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town goes to war.

Comment: I got interested in this book after reading a positive review and because the descriptions of it, and even the blurb hinted at a cute but bittersweet story, I imagined something in my head which, probably, gave me a wrong idea to start with and I ended up not that impressed after all.

When this story begins, we meet Beatrice Nash, a young woman who is independent and still faithful to her late father's work, wanting to be a writer and able to let his work be known. However, she is in a complicated financial situation, her father left her money but in a trust, and being female, this means a severe obstacle to manage it. She is hired to work as a Latin teacher at a small town, Rye, and she believes this will be the perfect location to allow her time as well to write. However, she quickly understands the atmosphere of the town, of how it works and how limited the minds of many people are. This wouldn't be enough to stop her, but war is coming and with it a huge lot of problems...

This didn't end up being the cozy, cute novel I imagined. I really thought this would be a heartwarming story, filled with mostly good tings and the biggest disappointment would be the inevitable pain and feelings of unfairness when war would affect these people and how we would feel their pain too. While it is true the author did a wonderful research work (I liked reading her note at the end of the book) and has quite a way with description, I'm afraid I didn't feel any connection with her words.

First of all, the heroine truly let me down. Yes, yes, all is a matter of perspective and others have loved her spirit...I did too! But Beatrice is more than her notion of what is wrong in society, she is more than fierceness and independence and frustration over things she can't change. This was clearly well portrayed, don't get me wrong. I felt as angry as she was over petty things and little humiliations but to me this all sounded secondary because Beatrice was a woman ahead of her time, true, but also too frontal. 

With this I mean that she was so focused on what she felt she was entitled - rightfully, yes - that her whole personality appeared to be one of disregard for convention and it was almost as if she were better than anyone else. Perhaps she didn't have to be humble for this to look different, but I feel if she had been, I'd have felt more empathy towards her. Or, perhaps, the issue is how the author wrote her, which if this was a more modern set story, I wouldn't mind it as much but in here, she felt rather overconfident for what her role would be. This is tricky because I also think women shouldn't have to be inferior to men and I did feel angry when Beatrice was treated thus, but...I wish she had been portrayed differently.

I suppose the writing itself was what I wish had been different in general. The story itself had many interesting and provocative elements and I was quite keen on reading so I could see how small things would impact the characters but while the descriptions were often well done and captivating, the characterization of the characters and their thoughts often annoying to me. This is a story about unfair situations, about lack of awareness, a good example of how people thought and behaved but on the other side of things, practically all characters were hard to like or connect with.

My favorite characters were Snout, one of the boys Beatrice would teach, but his family background (his father was a gypsy) and the fact he would always be judged by this stronger than his ability for studies. I also liked Daniel and Hugh, cousins close to Beatrice's age and they become friends which means we get to see a lot of focus on them too. Hugh is a steadfast hero, all the qualities one would have in one, but I was more fascinated by Daniel, who is clearly in the middle of a very complicated situation, which he couldn't deal with that well.

I also liked Agatha, the cousin's aunt and the person who tried what she could so Beatrice could be hired. I liked Agatha because she was eager to do something good, something right and she was very likable, even though some things weren't easy to maneuver. I think some of the characters' relationships and interactions were well done, but there was always this sort of uncomfortable notion about their lives and how society mattered so much. All understandable but made for a not that pleasant read in many moments.

War begins while we are invested in these characters and the author did it in a very subtle way at first and then more meaningful. Some situations of previous chapters got their importance achieved closer to the end, when war situations forced us to think about the incredible stupidity of Man, which is the idea war would be worthy to anyone or anything. I did cry over some scenes, even though there are other heavier fiction books on WWI, and I can't say the author didn't do a good job, but...

I think that, all things considered, I just didn't feel this was the cute story I imagined and added the characters weren't always that likable, I feel a little annoyed at the way things happened. I think that, had the aim of the story been another, or with different characters, I might have enjoyed it more. I see how it works for many, but to me it was too bittersweet and it wasn't a winner.
Grade: 5/10

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