A good friend and I are having a good-natured disagreement about Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War.
You can and should read Jamie Clarke Chavez' remarks here: Study This: The Summer Before the War.
I'm the friend disagreeing with her--on some things.
If you're in Downton Abbey withdrawal or love the thick juicy novels of R. F. Delderfield, this is an excellent book for you.
It's a rich, long story featuring multiple characters and their points of view during the hot, glorious summer of 1914 England.
I've been looking forward to it for months and saved it to read on my recent vacation.
Here's what it's about, from the blurb Jamie kindly included in her post:
We have plenty of characters and their lives to root for as we delve through a luxuriously long and detailed telling of their days that fateful summer.
"They" say if you want to know political history, read history books. If you want to know about domestic life, read historical fiction.
The Summer Before the War is the perfect book for learning about British domestic affairs before WWI.
Simonson has done her homework and filled the tale with spot-on facts and insights about that time in post-Edwardian England. (George was the king that year).
I savored moments of irony and interesting facts.
She's also filled the story with unusual characters, as well as different slants on men and women whose quirks often appear in stories from this time period.
But you don't mind, because they are interesting--when was the last time you read about a Romany (Gypsy) boy in England who made an ultimate sacrifice?
The foppish poet is here, but you like him despite of his irritating idiosyncrasies and particularly for his decisions by the end of the book.
The dutiful doctor, perhaps led into the wrong path by the foolish marriageable daughter of his mentor, is also in attendance.
But Hugh has a heart that recognizes it is negotiating with his brain and you root for and encourage him to see clearly.
And Beatrice--a bright orphaned woman who has to face the reality of what making a life for herself means in 1914 England when her financial situation cripples her dreams. She reflected the burgeoning feminist movement at that time in an admirable and understandable way.
Agatha oversees it all; happy in a long marriage but disarmed by the poor choices the nephews she loves so much appear to be making, not to mention how to cleverly foil some of the ridiculous and short sighted townspeople.
There were lots of people to root for and few antagonists except in a "I recognize that woman and man" type of way.
The involved story takes us all over the countryside that summer, often by bicycle, and it's a fine period piece to set the stage for what is to come.
There is much to like in this book.
Choosing to read a 500-page book while traveling several hundred miles a day by car probably isn't the best way to wallow in this rich read.
At best I read several chapters a night before falling asleep. I'm very sorry I didn't read it on the four hour plane trip--which would have immersed me in the experience.
Snatches and sips don't allow for much mulling or nuance recognition.
It's perfect for a long, lazy, warm, free summer weekend--or two.
Plan to spend time savoring this read.
The major issue for me, however, is something most people won't suffer from.
I've just finished writing a WWI novel.
I've spent the last three years researching WWI.
You can visit my Pinterest board to get a feel for what I've seen: World War I Shots
A good novel pulls you in and entertains. It enlightens and immerses you in the emotions of the story.
It paints pictures that stay in your mind and insights which causes you to think slightly differently about what you thought you knew.
That's available to most readers of The Summer Before the War.
My problem was I know too much and I could not shake the reality from my head.
I recognized and delighted in the irony of their innocent statements about what was happening across the Channel.
I laughed out loud more than once on the ridiculously naive things characters said.
But for me, beneath that laughter--and which often overtook it in the reading--lay the grim horror of what I knew was happening and what probably would happen to all those beautiful young men--whether in their flying machines or not, and certainly in those grotesque trenches.
I just couldn't laugh every time, even as I recognized the delicious irony and absurdity.
Simonson, I believe, was making a statement about the naivete and innocence, not to mention arrogant ignorance, of much of England and France during the summer of 1914.
Agatha's husband knew and warned, but he was brushed off as being able to solve any diplomatic crisis.
And that, friends, is one of the major tragedies of the Great War.
If you can set knowledge aside, enjoy The Summer Before the War.
I'm glad I read it.
Two friends disagree--sort of--about The Summer Before the War. Click to Tweet
Setting aside what you know to enjoy a novel--or not. The Summer Before the War. Click to Tweet
About the author
Michelle Ule is the author of five historical novellas including The 12 Brides of Summer Collection which will release on June 1, and an outlier Navy SEAL novel. She is currently writing a biography for Baker Books: Mrs. Oswald Chambers, which will be published in fall, 2017. You can follow her and her twice-a week blog at www.michelleule.com