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Reader Reviewed
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War

Historical Fiction   Books of the Year 2016   If You Like...You'll Love   Literary Fiction   Reading Groups   eBook Favourites   
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Despite the title – The Summer Before the War – which this terrific novel does indeed trace, it also spills into the horrors of the war years and eventually releases us back into some sort of very different peace. Set mostly in pretty coastal Rye, full of the strictures of Edwardian Society, it is evocative and very moving, highlight the prejudices and injustices of the early 20th Century. Agatha, whose husband is in the Foreign Office, is campaigning for a woman to replace the Latin Master in the local Grammar School. A group of Belgian refugees arrive, splitting the opinions of the community, then the new Latin Mistress befriends an old Gypsy’s grandson seeing his potential and wanting to school him for a scholarship. War arrives and the author powerfully highlights the ignorance, stupidity and insensitivity of those in command against the resilience and courage of the ordinary soldiers. It is heartbreaking, beautifully written and well researched. An excellent read. ~ Sarah Broadhurst

One of our Books of the Year 2016.

If you like Helen Simonson you might also like to read books by Louisa Young, Anna Hope and Kate Williams.

Reader Reviews

In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title. You can click here to read the full reviews.

  • Edel Waugh - 'This was a gorgeous story, if sometimes a little heart-breaking...I recommend this to anyone who loves books set around war time or if you just want a really good story. I did not want this to end.'
  • Helen Skinner - 'A beautiful, moving story about a small East Sussex town and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War...I enjoyed every minute I spent with these characters.'
  • Linde Merrick - 'I found this novel gently paced but so gripping that I just had to keep reading and finished it in two sessions.'
  • Cathy Small - 'A life in Sussex seemed a great place to quietly take a teaching position for Beatrice Nash following her father's death but the war takes over the life that she has made for herself.'
  • Bev Farningham - 'a wonderful tale of families and friends, rich and poor, trust and betrayal, the pecking order and how the younger fold adapt plus the shunning of people who lived outside society's accepted norm.'
  • Karen McIntosh - 'A beautifully told story of a world driven by class and misogyny that is forced to change with the onset of The First World War.'
  • Angie Rhodes - ' A wonderful, enchanting story of friendship, love and loss, with an array of enchanting characters. This is one for a summers evening, one to read and re read again and again.'
  • Barbara Goldie - 'A charming, funny but sad story brought to life by great writing.'
  • Cathy Petersen - 'A nicely un-taxing book for a quiet summer day set on the Sussex coast as the First World War looms.'
  • Sarah Harper - 'This gentle story of village life transformed by the devastation of war is underpinned by a heart-warming tale of love and fortitude and has all the hallmarks of a perfect summer read.'
  • Genevieve Mcallister - 'Helen Simonson's skills is in maintaining the honeyed tones of this novel, despite the difficult and moving themes she introduces.'
  • Sharon Lowe - 'A warm hearted and interesting tale of love. Funny and sad but slow burning at the same time. A pleasure to read.'
  • Nicola Lowes - 'Charmingly written with full characters and the atmosphere of a bygone age.'
  • Sarah Jones - 'Slow paced with slow to develop characters. Not enough to inspire my imagination or draw me into its world.'
  • Glenda Worth - 'A lovely family tale of life leading up to and during WW1. Main character is Beatrice Nash who arrives in Rye to take up a teaching post. Good insight into the horrors of war but also the class system.'
  • Christine Scott - 'Starts 1914 just before the 1st world war.  Story of Beatrice, a penniless Latin teacher and her experiences and love life during the war.'

Win tickets to Chiddingstone Castle Lit Fest

We have four pairs of tickets to give away to hear Alison Weir at the Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival Sunday 30 April 4 - 5 pm. Please note that this draw is open only for UK residents and is free to enter. Multiple entries from the same email address will only be counted once and the prize cannot be exchanged for cash and does not include transport or accommodation. Draw closes on Friday 17 April. The winners will be chosen randomly from all entrants and will be notified by 20 April 2017.

Enter prize draw Draw closes: 17/04/2017


The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

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 sabre 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 free thinking - 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 colourful characters that 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.


'Radiant ... I found myself turning pages with increasing awe as well as pleasure. The provincial village of Rye, Sussex in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates - but it's the depth and sensitivity with which Simonson 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 - that reveals the full mastery of her storytelling. Like a Jane Austen or Henry James for our day and age, Simonson is that good, and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure' -- Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

'At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. 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

'In the noisy world of today it is a delight to find a novel that dares to assert itself quietly but with the lovely rhythm of Helen Simonson's funny, comforting, and intelligent debut' -- Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'Olive Kitteridge

'How clever of her to have entered that era so convincingly and gently and to have written about such traumas along with lovely wit and grace...hugely enjoyable -- Sofka Zinovieff Words cannot convey the slow-burning pleasure' The Times

'Funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling ... It's about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone' New York Times

'A charming, funny and absorbing debut Daily Mail A beautiful little love story' -- Alexander McCall Smith

'A gorgeous gem of a book. I found it original and quirky and the characters absolutely adorable - she's a wonderful, original writer and the characters really live. My ideal read, I loved' -- Santa Montefiore, author of The House by the Sea

'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, author of The Song of Achilles

'A quiet, but ultimately devastating, story of a society invaded by the death and violence from across the Channel. Pinpointing the snobbery and rigidity of a social order that needed a good shake-up, it is gently satiric, but lovingly written. Don't be put off by the leisurely pace, for at its heart is shrewd observation and a memorable tenderness' Daily Mail

'There is a nostalgic, warmly seductive afterglow to this evocation of a tight-knit town ruptured yet also reinforced by the onset of war... It quickly becomes an immersive, howlingly emotional read' Sunday Times

'The novel begins as a comedy of manners in picturesque Rye but deepens into a meditation on loss in the trenches of Flanders. It's a slow-burn opening with local rivalries, gender politics and burgeoning romances, but the arrival of Belgian refugees shifts the focus to WWI and the physical and emotional wounds of all involved' Mail on Sunday

About the Author

Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson is an Englishwoman who spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex, near Rye. A graduate of the London School of Economics, she recently completed an MFA at Stony Brook Southampton. Her short stories and essays have been featured in various publications and broadcast on radio. A longtime resident of Brooklyn, New York, Helen is currently living in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and two sons. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is her first novel.

Photo credit: Nina Subin

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Book Info

Publication date

9th March 2017


Helen Simonson

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Bloomsbury Publishing PLC


592 pages


Historical Fiction
Books of the Year 2016
If You Like...You'll Love
Literary Fiction
Reading Groups
eBook Favourites

Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Historical fiction
First World War fiction



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