The Summer Before the War: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson 2016 x 200From the desk of Debra E. Marvin:

Discovering just-released fiction on my library’s New Audiobooks shelf makes me feel as if someone has let me slip in at the front of a long line. When I found Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, I was delighted she’d chosen another charming English town (I’d quite enjoyed her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) and the summer of 1914. Whether she planned it or not, the timing may help some of us adjust to the end of a ‘certain’ British historical drama, though enjoying this novel can’t be limited to Downton Abbey fans. What better time than the centennial of The Great War, to revisit its impact.

Protagonist Beatrice Nash is a young woman of high intellect, low tolerance for the superficial, and a middle-class income stymied by the death of her beloved father. Mr. Nash’s academic profession provided his daughter an unusual upbringing ripe with experiences beyond England, and making Beatrice independent, resilient, and practical. She was “not raised to be shy, and had put away the fripperies of girlhood.” All very good indeed when she takes a position as a Latin teacher for the local children and is tested by the restrictions and social expectations of small-town life in this delightful corner of Sussex. She simply must succeed or risk returning to her wealthy aunt’s suffocating control.

If this novel was a miniseries, she’d be the lead in an outstanding ensemble cast. To her left, Mrs. Agatha Kent, mentor, and “of a certain age when the bloom of youth must give way to the strength of character, but her face was handsome in its intelligent eyes and commanding smile.” To Beatrice’s right, Hugh Grange, likely the most uncomplicated man in town…who happens to be a brain surgeon. The residents of Rye create the rich background we so enjoyed in Ms. Simonson’s debut, and Rye itself rounds out the cast as quintessential England. I had no trouble balancing the many characters who exit the other side of the war—the autumn after the war, so to speak—forever altered. Just as it should be. Continue reading

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel, by Helen Simonson – A Review

Occasionally, I am tempted to read outside my Austenesque book sphere when high praise influences my TBR (to be read) pile. It has taken me over six months to get to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. My only regret is that I put it off so long. What a pleasure to discover a debut novel with so such charm, wit and satirical humor.

“You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care–and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

The main characters are a typical collection of fictional fodder, but with a clever slant. Therein lies its appeal. Pushing seventy, retired Major Ernest Pettigrew is not your usual hero. A delightfully droll proper English gentleman, the Major lives in the small idyllic country village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex populated with an array of characters so foibled in folly, it would make Jane Austen blush. Roger, his self-absorbed son is a banker in London driven by money and social connections with an equally obsequious American girlfriend Sandy. The Major readily admits that if he and Roger were not united in blood they would have nothing in common. There is also the morally amenable Anglican vicar and his busybody wife, the financially challenged local Lord, the opinionated golf club cronies, recently widowed sister-in-law and grubbing family, and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, an elegant fifty something Pakistani widow and proprietress of the local convenience store who shares his interest in literature and his wry sense of the ridiculous in his neighbors and the world. Their friendship evolves into a love story igniting local gossip and cultural prejudices that challenge the Major’s social sphere and re-evaluate his values.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a comedy of manners in the traditional sense but it also offers more than a gentle nod to the clash of cultures experienced in Britain when her colonial children immigrate to mother country, but after years and generations, are still considered outsiders. The story touches on important issues: love, honor, family obligations and tradition by exploring social values in the treatment of our elder parents, out-of-wedlock children, interfaith alliances, land stewardship and social progress. This may all seem rather dry, but the way in which Simonson blends in all the personal challenges between children, friends and community with a strong emphasis on humor is enchanting. The highlights for me were the duck hunting scene and the club dinner dance. Simonson has a way with similes and action description that left me crying with laughter.

There were moments at the beginning of the novel where I cringed at her caustic treatment of the American girlfriend Sandy with her brash manners and focus on the almighty dollar. However, I knew that I was being overly defensive for my countrymen when her boyfriend Roger Pettigrew and many of the other British characters act even more offensive and mercenary throughout the story. As an Anglophile she had me at page one, but I give full credit to Simonson’s polished and engaging writing style reverently influenced by the classics. Besides the similarities to Austen’s witty slant on three or four families in a country village, I can see bits of Georgette Heyer, P. G. Wodehouse and George Bernard Shaw in her energized dialogue, social reproof and sense of high comedy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is one of those unique debut novels that humorously captures a sense of what is familiar in our own lives and fictional lexicon by introducing memorable characters you will cherish. I recommend it highly.

5 out of 5 Stars

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel, by Helen Simonson
Random House (2010)
Hardcover (358) pages
ISBN: 978-1400068937

Further reading

© 2007 – 2010 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Scouting for Georgette Heyer along Hadrian’s Wall with author Helen Simonson

Guest blog with author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

In July, my husband, one of our two teenage sons, and I, set out to walk across England.  In seven days we walked eighty-four miles, coast to coast along the new National Hadrian’s Wall Path.  Staying in bed and breakfasts at night, stopping in pubs and tea rooms along the way for meals, we walked grassy pastureland and high open crags, following the path and the wide stone foundations of the Roman wall that once marked the northern edge of the Roman Empire.

One day, we stopped in at a small village community center that offered bathrooms, refreshments and a ‘walkers welcome’ sign outside.  When you are walking fifteen miles a day over farmland, it is advisable to stop in at every bathroom on offer!  Inside, the community center also offered a used book stand, with paperbacks for 10p (about 20 cents).  I had a good feeling as I scanned the rows and, sure enough, I quickly scored a copy of Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl.  My long-suffering husband rolled his eyes as I stuffed it in my backpack.  It has become a joke in our family that I don’t consider a vacation complete if I can’t pick up an orphaned Georgette Heyer novel from hotel bookshelf, used bookstore or beach book swap.

I first discovered Heyer’s novels as a young teenage girl.  While I reveled in the dashing heroes and heroines, the dampened muslin dresses, the importance of a perfectly matched pair of carriage horses, I also took note of the more important messages.  Heyer’s heroines invariably turn out to be very strong young women, who do not suffer fools and are not seduced by the glamour, or the dashing rakes, around them.  The heroes, while rich and fashionable, always prove to be very decent men – the kind who would never condescend to their inferiors or refuse to help a woman in distress.  Meanwhile the Regency period is laid out for the reader through a wealth of small details that build a portrait of the social and economic history of the time.  There is a deep sense of decency and civility in Heyer’s books that has stayed with me and probably influenced my own writing.  My first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, may be completely contemporary, but my hero is a decent man who tries hard not to suffer fools and quickly gets roped in to helping those whom many others in his social milieu disdain.

Georgette Heyer continues to pop into my mind at the most unlikely moments.  As we finished this last hiking expedition, hobbling up to the finish line in a small wooden gazebo in Bowness-on-Solway, she came to mind again.  A quick look at the map confirmed that we were looking across the Solway Estuary to Scotland – and to Gretna Green.  There was a little more eye-rolling from my husband and son as I explained to them the significance of Gretna Green as the nearest Scottish village for eloping couples in Regency England.  I can’t recall any of Heyer’s heroines actually getting to Gretna Green, but it was often an option or a threat.

Hiking across England made me happy.  With no responsibilities – just fifteen miles a day of sun and rain, endless views, Roman ruins, and the company of my wonderful husband and my son – I could enjoy the present day and forget all of life’s stresses.  Reading a Georgette Heyer is not quite a whole vacation, but it allows me to continue to slip away for a while and, for a few hours, be simply happy.  This is the legacy that keeps her novels passing through so many grateful hands, 10p at a time.

Born in England, Helen Simonson now lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two sons. Her debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was released in March garnering glowing reviews and a groundswell of admiration from happy readers. Set in the small English village of Edgecombe St. Mary, retired Major Ernest Pettigrew and Mrs. Jasmina Ali are two widows who form an unlikely attachment, fueling gossip and challenging decorum. Filled with endearing characters and an uplifting story, Simonson’s charming novel was chosen by Barnes & Nobel for their Discover Great New Writers series. Helen freely admits that Georgette Heyer is a life-long guilty pleasure and her gateway drug to Jane Austen.


Celebrating Georgette Heyer   •   August 1st – 31st, 2010