The novel’s amusing dialogue enlivens its compelling storyline and is sure to please fans of Downton Abbey ... It may seem at times that Simonson takes too long to move her story from Rye to continental Europe, but when the plot finally drops us into the trenches, the juxtaposition of the villagers’ naivete with the soldiers’ suffering effectively shell-shocks readers.
Simonson spent her adolescence in Rye, and she beautifully describes the pleasures of such a bucolic environment while also giving us the lowdown on how village life actually functions. She keeps several engaging plot lines moving at a stately pace, yet stays in tune with the deeper, unspoken concerns of Beatrice and others.
...most of the book is gentle. It is clear from the beginning who the favored characters are, and we can be assured they will end up satisfactorily. The book is prettily written, with charming descriptions and bits of historical detail. It even wanders into Dickens territory, with characters named Mr. Puddlecombe, Mr. Poot and Mr. Pike, and an urchin called Snout.
In what can only be described as authorial attention deficit disorder, Ms. Simonson jumps from character to character, plot point to plot point, crisis to crisis—and, disconcertingly, from social comedy to melodrama and back again ... Beatrice is a lovely protagonist. She deserves a better book.
...the author allows her protagonist the strength for genuine self-reflection, and her resulting clarity is refreshingly honest. Within the framework of a wartime love story, Simonson captures the contradictions of small-town life perfectly: the idyllic pastimes, the overly involved neighbors, the hints at secrets and unspoken truths. Her tale’s conclusion might be telegraphed from the opening pages, but thanks to a lively tone and sympathetic (though broadly sketched) characters, the journey is a thoroughly enjoyable, addictively readable one.
Fans of Helen Simonson's 2010 debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and readers who enjoy fiction steeped in Downton Abbey ambience will delight in The Summer Before the War. Set in the small coastal town of Rye in Sussex during the Great War, the book offers vivid description of town and country as well as a narrative laced throughout with quirky wit ... The book has many strong points but cannot quite conquer a first half in which virtually nothing happens.
World War I is well-trodden literary and historical territory, and several plot twists will be easily guessable by readers. But Simonson has lost none of her dry wit ... With its scents of the sea and tomato plants growing in the sun, The Summer Before the War offers a wry, melancholy landscape of a summer of tea parties and village fetes, before the mud and the bullets.
In The Summer Before the War, the novelist's attention to sensory detail is lovely, simple yet evocative ... The contrast between pastoral peace and the violent chaos of war is what gives this novel its heft.
Fans of Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, will be happy to find that her social comedy is just as fine-grained, filled with such delicious characters as the unctuous American novelist whose dramatic 'sighing garners him three or four dinner invitations a week' and the mayor's wife who demands her fair share of Belgian refugees. But the historic backdrop of this sprawling (and occasionally meandering) novel also allows her to spread her wings.
There are many pages to go and florid descriptions to wade through first. Everything in Summer is a bit muted and proper; it simmers for a long time. Happily, Simonson has thrown enough humor and soap-opera-ish intrigue into her pot to keep us from starving.
The Summer Before the War would be easy to categorize as a charming English village novel — as it mostly is. But its ending makes it more than just a cozy read.. Simonson begins each of the book’s sections with an epigraph. For the epilogue, she could have chosen a line from Beatrice’s beloved Aeneid: 'It may be that in the future you will be helped by remembering the past.'