The Summer Before the War


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I read the Large Print version, listened to some audio, and read about a dozen pages on an eBook.  I LOVED this book.  Maybe it's because I was just coming off of the interminable "The Poisonwood Bible" which I did NOT enjoy.  With TPB I would force myself to read a page when I had just a minute or two so that I could get through the entire book.  With TSBTW I was excited to have a minute to read, even if it was just one page.

This novel is set in East Sussex (England) in 1914.  While it does begin during the summer before the war, it covers approximately one year so the war begins and men go off and fight and the reader follows along.  Being in the U.S. over 100 years after this novel is set, there are a few language differences that are appropriate.  Although, I did find myself a bit distracted by the use of the word baize.  I think it occurred at least four times throughout the novel, three in close proximity and it is a word I was not familiar with.  (Well, I just looked it up and it means a rough, green, wool material like felt, typically used to cover gaming tables.)
  • (Ch. 2, pg. 37) "stubbed his cue into the baize"
  • (Ch. 3, pg. 40) "on either side of a green baize door,"
  • (Ch. 5, pg. 100) "...tablecloth over a green baize square,..."
Thirty years ago I knew a Belgian and I knew that Belgian's speak French - but I had forgotten.  This novel reminded me of that since there are Belgian characters speaking French.  I wonder how many people are unaware of what Belgian's speak and were confused.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  1

Religion:  0

Gruesome:  1

Suspense:  1

Morality:  3

Traditional:  2

Sex - only an implication of what may come

Religion - all the people are very nice and probably go to church but I don't think it was ever specifically mentioned

Gruesome - some war injuries but nothing extreme

Suspense - a little bit of a love triangle, a little bit for men trying to be valiant and giving others their spot to return home from the war

Morality - 
women sunbathing naked (pg. 46-47)  

Traditional - Etiquette appropriate with the times: a boy is scolded for speaking to a lady without being asked (pg. 72)  Men stand when a lady enters (pg. 81)  A pre-dinner conversation (Ch. 4) betrays views of women according to the time, as being unmarried = spinster and unworthy of being an author.  It's never said outright but strongly implied that two, or perhaps four or five characters are homosexual. (end Ch. 15, Ch. 16, Ch. 17, and several other places)

I found this book to be just the right pace.  Little bits of info on the key characters slowly come to light.  Usually you saw the plot coming because of the preceding hints.


Discussion Questions

In the beginning, did you have a preference for Hugh or Daniel?  Why?

In Chapter 20 (pg. 442) characters discuss the idea of changing the name of "dachshund" to "Freedom Hound" since Germans were viewed unfavorably during the war.  In more recent years there was a movement to change "french fries" to "Freedom Fries".  Should people be offended by long-existing names?  

At the end of Ch. 24 Beatrice thinks her father betrayed her, "traded her future for a few months of nostalgia." (pg. 534)  Did he?

At the end of Ch. 24 Celeste felt a lot of shame. (pg. 534)  Did you believe she was raped or did you think there was more to the story?  Did you have a suspect?

Why did Simonson set up Hugh and Daniel in a non-traditional way as cousins who were extremely close to a mutual aunt instead of having them be brothers relating to their parents?  What did it add to the story to have them as cousins?  Would having them be brothers have caused any negative changes to the story?

Theme Ideas

Serve tapioca pudding, like Hugh and Daniel joked about while playing pool (Ch. 2)
Serve raspberries and cream like Cook got for Daniel. (Ch. 3, pg. 40)
Serve "scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, warm raisin cakes, and Kedgeree." (pg. 48)  With raspberries and cream (pg. 49) and hot tea and toast (pg. 48)
Serve Madeira like at Agatha's impromptu dinner party to welcome Beatrice. (Ch. 4, pg. 81)
Serve sherry trifle and a platter of fruit like dessert at the informal dinner when John Kent came home before war was declared. (Ch. 7, pg. 168)
Serve Victoria sponge - it is referred to several times throughout the novel.
Set up a fancy tea with finger sandwiches, small cakes on a stand, tea from an urn and lemon water. (Ch. 14 and several other places)
Serve sandwiches and "plain rock cakes" both on a cake stand, pork pie on a stoneware plate, confit duck legs in a bowl, champagne, liquor and tea, like when Beatrice and Celeste went to Amberleigh's. (Ch. 17)
Serve sandwiches, blackberry tarts and tea like when Beatrice called unexpectedly on Agatha. (Ch. 18)

Decorate with fresh flowers and serve hot tea - as Agatha (and many other characters) appreciated.
Meet in a fancy, manicured garden.  Beatrice thinks food tastes better outdoors.  Have a picnic or sit on a patio.

Make a project for the greater good such as hats for cancer patients or plarn mats for homeless.

Play "Peg o' My Heart" like Daniel and the drunk guys sang in the bar. (Ch. 16, pg. 385)
Play "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do" like in Ch. 20 before the fete.
Play the national anthems of Belgium and Great Britain and "Land of Hope and Glory" like during the fete parade. (Ch. 20, pg. 444)

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