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The Summer Before The War

The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.

Named one of The Best Books Of The Year by The Washington Post and NPR

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

Praise & Reviews

“At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson’s characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset.”— Annie Barrows,author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

“Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, Sussex in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime—and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart—reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age, she is that good, and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure.”
—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun

“A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. Simonson follows Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010), her charming debut, with another comedy of manners nestled in a British village. This time she deepens the gravitas and fattens the story, which begins on the cusp of World War I. Pettigrew fans will cheer to find romance mentioned on the second page and class snobbery on the fourth…Writing cleanly, Simonson has an observant eye and a comic touch…this book is beautifully plotted and morally astute. Even the callow American has his part to play. Aficionados of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will sigh with pleasure.”
Kirkus Reviews, Jan 2016

“Simonson’s writing is restrained but effective, especially when making quiet revelations. A heartbreaking but satisfying ending seems fitting for a story about the social constructs that unfairly limit people and their potential.”
Publishers Weekly, Jan 2016

“Simonson’s writing is as delightful as ever, lively, witty and heartfelt, while engaging thoughtfully with the brutal imminence of World War I.”
– Madeline Miller, Song of Achilles

“More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles—though it serves the latter purpose, too. . . . the gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup.”
The Seattle Times

“A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”
The Washington Post

“Immersive . . . There is a nostalgic, warmly seductive afterglow to this evocation of a tight-knit town ruptured yet also reinforced by the onset of war.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“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 . . . thanks to a lively tone and sympathetic . . . characters, the journey is a thoroughly enjoyable, addictively readable one.”
Entertainment Weekly

“In The Summer Before the War, the novelist’s attention to sensory detail is lovely, simple yet evocative.”

Once again Simonson proves that beneath the easygoing surface of her fiction are layers of dark humor and tragedy. . .the novel’s gentle pacing makes the outbreak of the war all the more harrowing.”

“Simonson is a consummately thoughtful writer…her every page is a joy and surprise to read.”
The Buffalo News

“Fans of Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, will be happy to find that her social comedy is just as ingrained. . .but the historic backdrop of this sprawling . . . novel also allowed her to spread her wings, taking readers from cozy tea parties at the start to the trenches on the French front by the final pages.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Missing Downton Abbey? Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War can fill the void.”
Miami Herald

“Fans of Helen Simonson’s 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. . .one of the novel’s accomplishments is the depiction of war as a tragedy that affects everyone, not just the soldiers in the trenches. Another is its portrayal of Beatrice as she embarks with gusto on her dream career.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“If you’re mourning the end of Downton Abbey as I am, it’s time for the witty and wise The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

“[Simonson’s] many endearing characters and the quaint village come to life on the pages through her well-crafted descriptions . . .I felt privileged to get such a clear picture of the effects of the war on a small village in the south of England.”
Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star

“A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. . . this book is beautifully plotted and morally astute.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Heartbreaking but satisfying . . . Simonson does a great job crafting the novel’s world.”
Publishers Weekly

“This novel is just the ticket for fans of Simonson’s debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and for any reader who enjoys leisurely fiction steeped in the British past.”

“Novels of village life are practically an institution in the U.K. . . . and Helen Simonson is a brilliant new voice in this tradition.”

“There is a nostalgic, warmly seductive afterglow to this evocation of a tight-knit town ruptured yet also reinforced by the onset of war…an immersive, howlingly emotional read.”
Sunday Times (London)

“P.G. Wodehouse and Mapp and Lucia territory…Simonson’s control of tone is remarkable as she manages to confront serious issues with a gentle satire.
Daily Express

“Begins as a comedy of manners in picturesque Rye but deepens into a meditation on loss in the trenches of Flanders.”
Mail on Sunday

“The meticulous detail and flair, which so beautifully conjures up the atmosphere of the times, is matched by an emotional depth that makes this as harrowing as it is readable.”
Sunday Mirror

Daily Mail