Man, I needed this book, and I don’t mean that in any particularly deep way. It’s just that the last couple of months, I’ve been deep into the Stephen King, and the Naomi Novik, and then unexpectedly took the deep dive into Red Rising. All of which has been absolutely outstanding, but it’s been kind of super rich reading. A very dear friend recommended The Summer Before the War, and so I put it on my library hold list… and that very same night it was checked out to me, so here we are.
Now, this friend of mine who recommended it is a very fancy college professor with a brain like whoa, so when this turned out to be light and fun and romantic, I was beyond surprised, and then totally relieved. Sometimes you just need a little period drama, you know?
Which isn’t to say that this doesn’t touch on some really interesting stuff. But honestly, none of the stuff that’s raised as a point of modern interest is particularly investigated. It’s all just scenery… pretty, pretty scenery. And you can choose to think hard about it, or not; reader’s choice.
The Summer Before the War tells the story of the goings-on in a small coastal village south of London, mostly in the summer before World War I, from the perspectives of: Beatrice Nash, a “spinster” (early 20’s) Latin teacher who just lost her father to cancer and has vowed never to marry but rather maintain her independence; Agatha Kent, an older high-society lady who sponsors the hiring of Beatrice by the school board of the village and takes her under her wing; Hugh Grange, Agatha’s beloved nephew and basically adopted son, who summers with the Kents along with his cousin/basically adopted brother Daniel; and Snout, one of Beatrice’s students, whose family is shut out from society because his father belongs to the Romany clan that summers in the village every year.
It’s a totally straight-forward romance in most ways: Beatrice and Hugh fall in love, against all odds and previous plans, hers to be independent forever, and his to marry the daughter of his semi-famous and very rich, well-established surgeon-mentor. It’s a lovely love story, set in the English countryside, with two people that I liked very much.
But there are also some really interesting sub-plots that could demand deeper thought: there is a never-actually-admitted-to lesbian couple; Daniel is gay and may or may not have been in a relationship with his “beloved friend” (it’s unclear to me whether they’re physically involved, or whether Daniel is just desperately in love with him); a young and beautiful Belgian refugee turns out to be pregnant, having been raped by a German officer in a very sad story that’s brought to light; the local Romany clan is very-thoroughly ostracized by the people of the village, and poor young Snout enlists when he learns that his heritage will always keep him from following his passion for scholarship; and Beatrice has a hell of a time making her way easily in this incredibly sexist time and place.
It’s all just part of the environment: none of it is challenging or deep. It’s just… life. And even though it’s not a completely-satisfying ending, I moved on to my next book in a hurry, because none of this is going to stick with me very long. Even though there’s a lot to think about, I don’t feel challenged to think about it; I don’t have to if I don’t want to. And I get to enjoy this as the brain sorbet that I didn’t know that I needed until I got it.