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The Summer Before the War

A Novel
Narrated by: Fiona Hardingham
Length: 15 hrs and 47 mins
4 out of 5 stars (1,739 ratings)
Regular price: $31.50
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Publisher's Summary

New York Times best seller

"A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal... a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.” (The Washington Post)

The best-selling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.

Named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post and NPR

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master. 

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking - and attractive - than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war. 

Praise for The Summer Before the War 

“What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath.” (Woman’s Day)

“This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.” (Good Housekeeping)

“Perfect for readers in a post-Downton Abbey slump...The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup.... More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles - though it serves the latter purpose, too.” (The Seattle Times)

©2015 Helen Simonson (P)2015 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson's characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset." (Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and coauthor of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society)

"Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime - and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart - reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age - she is that good - and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure." (Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun)

"Narrator Fiona Hardingham breathes life into a huge cast of characters.... She's especially adept with accents; the American author who is trying to downplay his heritage sounds appropriately ambiguous, and a Belgian refugee who speaks halting, heavily accented English is convincing.... This is storytelling at its finest, with a narration to match." (AudioFile)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Not Sure About This Book

I loved the fresh and engaging writing from Simonson's first novel Major Pettigrew and had really high hopes for this book. I have finished several books recently that took a great deal of time before they really took off. In the end those titles were worth the wait. This book has so many five star reviews and encouragements to give it time that I am trying to stick with it--but am really flagging.

My problem lies in the very modern thinking, voices and language used by these characters. I don't think it reflects the way people were or actually spoke in 1914. I have commented about this problem in historic fiction writing before. Others have mentioned it here in reviews of this book as well. The reason I feel this way is that my grandparents were born in the late 1880's, were British and my grandfather fought in WWI. I knew my grandparents really well as they live to be 99 and 100 years old. The way they thought, talked and the vocabulary they used had absolutely nothing in common with the writing of this book. I find this disturbing and it brings much of the story into question for me.

In addition, I am not a fan of the narration so far. I am not willing to give up on the book yet because, as I said at the start of this review, I really loved Major Pettigrew. I am going to put the book aside for a while and then start over in a bit. I will resubmit this review if I have a change of heart after my second attempt at the book. Just be aware--if you are looking for a story with a high degree of historic accuracy I might think again when pondering this title. As I said in the headline--I am not sure about this book.

61 of 69 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Sophomore Slump

I'm not sure why, but this book just didn't keep me engaged, until the last 2-3 hours ( and, for a 15 hour listen, that's a long struggle to keep listening). The author's first book, "Major Pettigrews Last Stand" was charming, the characters warm and sympathetic. Maybe that's what I found lacking here; there is really no one who captures the heart and interest of the reader. The only character who came close was Snout, and *spoiler* he comes to a tragic end. I can't falter the narration, it was quite good. This just didn't live up to the high standard of "Major Pettigrew".

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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Disappointing

I loved the authors first book and looked forward to this one. I was very disappointed. It reminded me of the Masie Dobbs series but nowhere near as interesting. It could have also been the author was going for a Downton Abbey similarity and failed on that level as well. I listened because I kept thinking it was going to improve but sadly it didn't. If you want to listen to a charming book, her first, Major Pettigrews last stand, was worth the time- this one falls flat.

17 of 21 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Divine Book Club Listening

Just what I was in the mood for!
"The Summer Before the War" has a little bit of something for everyone. There is sweetness and charm, grit and war, artists and suffragettes, and a whole lot of historical realism. Oh, and a few laugh out loud moments. Oh! And a few lump-in-throat, blink back tears moments too.
While a lot of the book is predictable, the characters are immensely likable without being annoying and "cleverly quirky," and the situations are suitable. This is a book that author Helen Simonson obviously cared about to get right: her characters laugh and suffer, they make hard choices, they live wholly within an era that she draws with details down to a wrapped horse's feet in a funeral cortege. She has a wonderful sense of language and you can almost smell the summer air of a world at peace and feel the bitterness of the cold wind of a world at war.
Beatrice Nash serves as a wonderful heroine, progressive yet not unrealistically individualistic for the time. While she longs to be independent of society's strict rules, she still understands that she must live within the confines of those rules, and acts accordingly. And the book paints a grand portrait of how people lived and breathed within such a set society with lovely glimpses of how others, women in particular, tried to dodge and side-step it all. There is one wonderful scene featuring photography, nudity, and a whole lot of blushing and looking away: simply marvelous!
The weakest bit, and I feel bad saying this, is the narration. Fiona Hardingham does a splendid job considering the length of the book, the many, many characters, and the complexity of the situations, but she fails on a few points. Her American accent is deplorable, her French one is a tad overenthusiastic, her male voices can become flat and strident at times, and a few times she blends the characters so that they are indistinguishable and hard to follow. Still, a 3.5 performance rounded up because, for the most part, she does well with what is a demanding and formidable task.
Also, while the first nine hours of the book are compelling and engaging, the last part is flat-out... well, let's just say that I put off sleeping for a bit of time.
Lovely, heartfelt, bitter and poignant at times, this is a book well worth the time.

37 of 48 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • CV
  • 07-12-16

Disappointing

What disappointed you about The Summer Before the War?

I just couldn't get into the storyline or the characters. None of them held my interest- I found my mind wandering off.

What was most disappointing about Helen Simonson’s story?

I found it lacked a hook.

What do you think the narrator could have done better?

The narrator was good.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Disappointment

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

Sadly disappointing!

I was so wanting to like this book as I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. I just found this book disagreeable & dull. It was an endless and heavy-handed reminder of how sexist, classist, and racist early 20th century England was, without an interesting plot or engaging characters.

8 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

Almost couldn’t make it to the end

Interminably long. None of the characters were compelling enough to carry the book forward. I suffered to the end hoping for a more interesting story, but was disappointed.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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I am listening to this for the third time!

Would you consider the audio edition of The Summer Before the War to be better than the print version?

I only listened to this version, and I obviously think it is terrific because I am listening to it for the third time!

Who was your favorite character and why?

I love Beatrice, the new school teacher, but my favorite character was Hugh Grange. I loved his honor and kindness and growth through the story.

What about Fiona Hardingham’s performance did you like?

Her reading is impeccable. Every character sounded exactly like they should! Maybe the hardest part was getting Beatrice right, because she is the main character and has a lot of growing and changing to do, yet she needs to stay true to herself. It can be hard to read a character like this as empathetically as she needs to be read, and Fiona reads Beatrice so perfectly I can see her in my mind as I listen.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

There were times I was so riveted I couldn't leave the car where I usually listen to and from going to my half hour drive to Lifetime Fitness each weekday! This was the first book I actually made time to listen to at home, doing chores...and finally I just sat and listened to the ending!

Any additional comments?

There is one scene I have to skip past because it is devastating...I can't stand to hear it. SO I listen to everything BUT that one scene now when I re-listen to the book! The scene fits but is so awful that I wish it wasn't in the book, which was why I gave it 4 stars instead of 5.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Worth It If You Can Wait for It

The Narrator was awesome. Some of the day to day life was more like Middlemarch than a modern book but that is ok when you trust an author, and I totally do here. I adored her first book so kept telling myself to be patient because I knew the story would really grab hold.

English village life, perfect summer, orphaned woman struggles to make it without the trust fund and its demands, two handsome cousins, their loving imperfect Aunt and we know WWI is coming.

Is this Downton Abbey? Not near so posh. Birdsong? Not near so heavy but a bit. Middlemarch? Yes but for WWI.

A bit too detailed in places but very active voice. You will be able to picture everything that unfolds and that is A++ in my book, as is a book with characters I care about like this one. So if you are a patient person and love a good old fashioned English love / Carry On story, this book is for you.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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A Wonderful Book

I heard Helen Simonson discussing this book on NPR and as I had enjoyed her previous book, I bought this one. The interview made it sound like it was a light-hearted comical look at England the summer of 1914 and while there certainly are eccentric characters, it is a rather somber look at a world about to change forever. The characters grab your attention and hold it. I finished the book on the way home from work today (a 2.5 hour round trip commute) and when it was complete I did that very rare thing - drove in silence. I had to reflect on the characters and events. I didn't want it to end; it is one of the books that will stay with me. The narrator is wonderful - at one point as she was doing a male character I remember thinking "this man does a good job with females as well", completly forgetting the narrator was female. My error was made because she vocally creates such real characters that they come alive. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful