The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Beatrice Nash arrives in the southeastern English village of Rye to teach Latin. Her sponsors, Agatha and John Kent, are quite welcoming, and their nephews, poet Daniel and surgeon-in-training Hugh, help her secure the position when a last-minute male candidate appears. Much prejudice against class, race, and gender are evident in 1914 Rye, and Beatrice chafes under her late father’s restrictive trust, especially when asked to explain why she bought new underclothes. When Belgian refugees arrive in town, Beatrice agrees to share her half-cottage with lovely Celeste, a professor’s daughter. The professor lodges with the local celebrity, an American author. The war soon comes to the village, as Hugh, Daniel, and Beatrice’s best student, a half-gypsy boy, go off to enlist. Daniel’s lover has broken up with him, and Hugh hopes to marry his mentor’s daughter after the war. The villagers start up new committees and have a parade to help raise funds for the war effort. The book starts out bright and charming, and gains depth and some darkness along with the war. Some minor characters are a bit clichéd, but I really cared about the main characters. I found this to be a very absorbing read and while not fast paced, it was still hard to put down, as was the author’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the village, including those of Beatrice’s cottage, her classroom full of sweaty young boys, and the professor’s study.