The Summer Before the War

9780812993103_p0_v3_s192x300The cover of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War evokes a breezy romantic tale, but if you’ve read her last novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’ll know to expect more.  The key figure in the tale is Beatrice, aptly named for her Shakespearean qualities of intellect and strength, with her ability to manage her own life despite the hurdles thrown at women who dare to aspire to be financially independent.  Do I hear the ghost of Jane Austen whispering between the lines?

Beatrice, the daughter of an acclaimed professor, speaks several languages and has a formidable education, thanks to her father’s upbringing.  When he dies, she is forced to live with his family until she escapes to the position of Latin master at an East Sussex  country school in Rye outside of London.  Simonson sets the scene in the first part of the book with bucolic descriptions and a hint of a romance with the local medical student, Hugh, whose wealthy aunt is sponsoring Beatrice as the first woman Latin master in the school.  Beatrice secretly aspires to writing a novel to create an independent income; her inheritance can only be released when she marries but she is determined to make a life on her own.  The plot seems sublimely formulaic, as it did in the beginning of Pettigrew, until the war threatens normalcy and the refugees from Belgium appear – a switch reminiscent of Downton Abbey from the first season to the realities of World War I.

The shift to the war and its effects is abrupt, but the principal characters carry the story through the bloody front lines as well as the stark changes in the little town of Rye.  Lives are changed by the war.  Hugh enlists to use his medical training at the front, and rejects his ambition for a rich medical practice.   Simonson creates a nod to poet soldiers in her depiction of the Rupert Brooke like character of Daniel, Hugh’s best friend and cousin, and Snout, the bright student from the wrong side of the tracks, holds the promise of success, yet his life is not romanticized into a happy ending.

Simonson carefully addresses unpopular topics through her minor characters: Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee, whose father has more regard for preserving the culture than caring for his daughter; the mayor’s wife, who almost reverts to stereotypical prejudice and sadly leads others to her way of thinking; Agatha, the free thinking aunt of Hugh and Daniel, who quietly rebels against narrow mindedness, yet manages to preserve her place as the wife of Mr. Kent, the esteemed foreign officer.

Although the war overcomes the story in most of the book, the varied minor plot lines offer relief in romance, adventure, even some mystery.  And, in the end, The Summer Before the War is really about the people in this small town – representative of many who survived through the war to understand what is really important in their lives, and mourn missed opportunities for those who did not survive.

If you enjoyed Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and her Austen-like style of writing, you will find The Summer Before the War to be a satisfying read.

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

9781476704586_p0_v3_s260x420Everyman’s dream – to suddenly inherit money from an obscure distant relative – drives the plot of Justin Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour.  To prove his legitimate claim to the millions left by his great-grandmother, Tristan must follow a quest that leads through the trenches of World War I, an expedition up Mt. Everest, and the icy volcanic slopes of Iceland.  The romance between star-crossed lovers is the focus of Tristan’s quest, as he searches for that one piece of evidence that would help him claim his fortune.  His intuition leads him into compelling adventures across Europe.  I skipped over some of the details of the war, and hoped the flashbacks to the expedition would reveal clues.  The promise of a resolution kept me reading, but unfortunately the ending is vague and unsatisfying.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Charles (Caroline) Todd at Left Coast Crime

Mystery authors are materializing out of the Monterey mist here at the Left Coast Crime conference. New authors each had a minute to summarize and promote their stories over breakfast, but my favorite close encounter came last night at the opening reception. As I munched my hummus cucumbers and sipped some California wine, I noticed the solicitations of a younger man to a well-dressed elderly woman seated at my table. I wondered if he was her publisher? her escort? her lover, plying her with food and drink? When introduced, all my assumptions were dismissed: he was her son, and the duo – Charles and Caroline Todd- write the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series, set in Scotland Yard after World War I.

I’ve downloaded “A Test of Wills” -the first Inspector Ian Rutledge book, and hope to start a relationship with a new author(s) and a compelling character. I’m told that as a fan of Downton Abbey, I will immediately connect to Inspector Ian Rutledge—a British World War I veteran who suffers from shell shock as he returns to investigating London crimes.

Have you read any of the Todd mysteries?

20140321-132310.jpg

Anita Shreve and Stella Bain

9780316098861_p0_v3_s260x420With some authors, what they write doesn’t matter so much as that they meet the expectations of their faithful readers.  The author of seventeen novels, Anita Shreve delivers her latest – Stella Bain – using memory loss, an abusive husband, World War I, shell shock, psychoanalysis, and lost loves in a romantic tale of an early twentieth century woman who has the strength and courage to recover and create a new life.

If you are a fan and have been waiting, you will enjoy the story and wonder when the next book is coming.

Have you read Anita Shreve’s Rescue?  Check out the review – here

The Girl You Left Behind

9780670026616_p0_v1_s260x420JoJo Moyes latest book – The Girl You Left Behind – has it all – intrigue, romance, historical World War I setting, the French countryside, even art – with references to Matisse. Charming and suspenseful, the story uses the painting by artist, Edouard Lefevre of his red-haired wife, Sophie, to link two love stories – one set in wartime France, the other in a modern war of provenance.

When the Kommandant, who has occupied Sophie’s hotel with his enemy troops, takes an interest not only in her husband’s portrait but in Sophie herself, the picture becomes a negotiating tool for Edouard’s freedom. Years later, Liv Halston finds herself in the middle of a court battle to keep the picture that gave her comfort when her husband died prematurely. Moyes cleverly builds in a back story of wartime drama.

A friend recommended this book, and I happily lost myself in the story, but – even better – the references to Matisse, one of my favorite artists, reminded me of my recent visit to the Matisse exhibit at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.