It's 1914 in Helen Simonson's new novel, "The Summer Before the War," and while the world is holding its breath against the German invasion of Belgium, residents of the English seaside town of Rye are riveted by the arrival of the new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash — a well-educated woman not nearly as old or as plain as she had appeared on paper.
The well-traveled daughter of a doting professor, the newly orphaned but fiercely independent Beatrice (think Elizabeth Bennet with a bike) plainly bristles at being patronized by everyone from the titled aunt who holds the purse-strings to her inheritance, to the parochial town leaders who expect her to be pleased about earning less than the unqualified male candidate ahead of her. As she confides to one of the two dashing cousins clearly intended to derail her commitment to penury and spinsterhood, "I've been told I have to work harder to cultivate an appropriate attitude of grateful subordination."
Fans of Simonson's first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," will be happy to find that her social comedy is just as fine-grained, filled with such delicious characters as the unctuous American novelist whose dramatic "sighing garners him three or four dinner invitations a week" and the mayor's wife who demands her fair share of Belgian refugees ("I shall not shirk from the strife!").
But the historic backdrop of this sprawling (and occasionally meandering) novel also allows her to spread her wings, taking readers from cozy tea parties at the start to the trenches on the French front by the final pages.
Fighting the war at home is Beatrice's champion, Agatha Kent, the quietly revolutionary wife of a foreign minister who makes the town march to her tune with flattery, deference and strategic dinner parties. "Women like us need to demonstrate our worth, rather than demonstrating in the streets," Agatha advises Beatrice, though students of history — or even of "Downton Abbey" — can guess that her worldview won't survive the onslaught of loss her generation is about to endure.
For book club readers, Simonson's tale may also inspire some interesting discussion about how the world responded to a refugee crisis a century ago, when Great Britain opened its cities and small villages to 250,000 Belgian refugees — still the largest single influx of refugees in that nation's history.
Like her neighbors, Beatrice opens her home to a young Belgian girl, naively gratified "to have found some small connection to the war" — a connection that becomes inescapable by the end of this satisfying and heartbreaking book.
Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in St. Paul.