The Second Act: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

One of the first books I read this year was Helen Simonson’s forthcoming The Summer Before the War. Simonson wrote the extremely popular novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which went on to spend weeks on the bestseller lists and ended up on many of the best books of the year list. I recall from my days at the bookstore it selling week after week and people urging me to read it. I just never got to it. I finished and while thinking about the book, checked its page on Goodreads. Some readers really seem disappointed, though now there are a lot more 5 star reviews on there. I’m always curious how a second novel from a favorite author will be received and am looking forward to reading the reviews when it arrives in March.

Set in the town of Rye in Essex, England right before the outbreak of WWI, Simonson focuses on the social mores and ideas on gender and class. After losing her beloved father who raised her to be a well-read and intelligent young woman, Beatrice Nash arrives to tutor 3 young boys in Latin before starting as a Latin instructor at the local school in the Fall. Immediately we learn that her hiring was controversial and the idea to do so was led by headstrong Agatha Kent who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The  childless couple dote on their nephews Hugh Grange, finishing up medical school, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet about to start a literary journal.

I was quickly taken up with the inner workings of the town as nepotism threatens Beatrice’s job and other travails. The many pages flew by and the story inevitably takes a darker turn when the war begins and after Germany invades Belgium. It truly speaks well of a writer who can craft such memorable characters, even ones you might not like right off the bat but yet whose lives you worry about and you just hope they survive the horrors of trench warfare.

At the end, I loved reading it and was sorry to get to the end. Will I run and read Major Pettigrew? It’s on my list but I’m still savoring these characters for now.

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