The Summer Before The War, Helen Simonson: DNF

The stone terrace already looked older than the house, softened to a pleasant mossy gray under the relentless dripping of English rain, its stone balusters pressed by fat shrubs and draped in twisting vines of honeysuckle, wisteria, and the teacup-sized pale green flowers of a clematis. White roses climbed up the house from beds filled with brilliant blue agapanthus. Beatrice stooped to cup in her hands a waxy blue flower head as large as a hat and to wonder if plants ever sensed how far they were from home . . . Beyond the terrace, a croquet lawn fell away on its farthest edge to a lower terrace of rolling grass . . . Below, the stacked red roofs of Rye poked up from its flat skirt of marshes, and beyond, the sea formed a broad, glittering swath under the wide blue bowl of the sky.

I definitely did NOT think that I would be DNF-ing The Summer Before The War. So certain was I of this that I kept reading, and persisting, and pushing through till I ended up finishing 267 of the 473 pages. It was at this point that I realized I had way too many other books that I actually looked forward to picking up!

I’m not completely sure why I’m DNF-ing this. I remember enjoying Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have been thinking about re-reading it at some point. This one has a small town as its setting, and has the kind of microscopic focus that I generally enjoy—lives of ordinary people with all its complexities, and ordinariness. This is also a kind-of-coming-into-her-own story of a 23-year-old female who chooses independence over marriage in Edwardian England.

That Beatrice, the 23-year-old, is going to fall in love with Hugh, and he with her, is obvious from the start. That Daniel, Hugh’s cousin is gay, and will most likely meet some sort of heartache is also obvious. I don’t have a problem with predictability. If anything, I like knowing the lay of the land. But in this case, the predictability made the story boring.

The Summer Before The WarAgatha Kent is Hugh’s and Daniel’s aunt, and is along with Beatrice, Hugh, and Daniel, one of the epicenters of the story. She’s the one who gets Beatrice appointed as the Latin teacher in the local school amidst much uproar. She’s a progressive but is not given to crossing boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. She’s also a veteran at navigating the waters of social niceties and its inherent politics and power struggles.

Hugh is a nice young man, and Daniel is a temperamental poet. Agatha’s characterization is compelling but she’s flat as a character. She has the potential to be interesting as when she is “forced to consider whether her sympathetic interest in her staff’s families might have more to do with appearing generous than any willingness to be inconvenienced by their actual problems,” but such bursts of realizations are few and far between.

Beatrice’s character shows promise, and one can see the way she is evolving through the course of the story. Her uneasy alliance with Mr. Poot who’s a sort-of-adversary, and in fact the revelation of Mr. Poot as not just a character inserted for the purposes of foiling Beatrice’s appointment as a teacher, but as one who while sort of flailing around, is also a person in his own right, caught my attention. However, Beatrice gets only a part of the limelight. (And Mr. Poot is there in just a scene or two).

Writing this, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I could not find myself sufficiently engrossed in The Summer Before The War is because of what-felt-to-me the lack of any development in three of the four major characters. They remain at Page 267 pretty much as they were at page 1.

I do want to point that there’s some good stuff in there too. Simonson’s especially skilled at capturing both the rhythms of a small town life, and at evoking the Englishness of her setting. There’s also bits and pieces about war and its paraphernalia that provide some food for thought (and that may perhaps increase in the second half of the book, now that the stage’s been set). Nonetheless, I’m happy with my decision to DNF this, and instead proceed with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Middlemarch and maybe also All The Birds In The Sky!

13 thoughts on “The Summer Before The War, Helen Simonson: DNF

  1. Oh DNFing a book is always hard but you have so many great books to read! I think I read her first book too and kinda enjoyed it, but perhaps not enough to try this. I have Barbara Pym for books along this vein, have you read her works? But the cover of this book is so pretty, it has to be said 🙂

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    • I haven’t yet! Well, that is to say I read three-fourths of Excellent Women before having to return it to the library! I think I’d enjoy her. 😛

      And yes, that cover is sooo pretty isn’t it? It’s the U.K. cover! The U.S. one is less vibrant!

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    • I have to say I ended up at 267 only because I WAS SURE I WAS GOING TO FINISH THIS!!! 😀

      till Hubs caught me grumbling and asked me why I was reading something that was making me grumble. 😛

      and yeah, life’s too short to plod through books that don’t appeal. Plus, like Jenny mentions, I can always return to them at a later date if I want to! (even though that’s a pretty rare occurrence!)

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  2. What a shame! But, valid life choice. I have a ton of library books checked out right now that are approaching their final due date, and it’s made it a little easier than usual for me to say “this isn’t working for me” and move on to the next. It’s not like I can’t return to the books another time!

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  3. It’s too bad it didn’t work for you. But I defnitely respect the valiant effort before the DNF. I usually give a book 50-60 pages or so (unless it’s for my book group, then I try my best to finish it.) It’s on my TBR because I loved Major Pettigrew. I didn’t know this new one was so long. LOL. I’ll let you know what I think when I get around to it. (It could be a while!)

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    • yes, yes, yes, that was why I made the valiant effort–I really enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and had been on the look out for Simonson’s next book FOREVER!

      And yes!!! I too did NOT realize that it would be THIS LONG!

      I’d really love to know what you think about it whenever you do get around to reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That lack of growth bit always stalls my interest. Even when the rest of the story has all the catnip-plot-pieces I love. (Like this one does: teachers and poets and England and Edwardian and people with names like Agatha & Beatrice!) Even that quote at the beginning with the ‘blue flower head as large as a hat’ (I really want one of those!) But it often takes someone else to ask me why I am frowning and grumbling my way through the book, before I realise I don’t want to continue it. So interesting isn’t it?!

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    • I know what you mean about the names! I thought Beatrice Nash was such a solid, reliable sort of name! 😛

      And yes, sometimes it takes someone to point out the obvious before you go, oh whaaa, what, is THAT what I was doing? 😀 (husbands can be terribly useful some times! :P)

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  5. I love how subtly you DNF’d it, Juhi. It’s a delight to read your posts even if they are about DNF’d books. 🙂 I look forward to reading your thoughts on ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’ and ‘All the Birds in the Sky’.

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