To me, books are far more than stories I can slip in and out of as I open and close their covers. They are portals that transport me to another time and place. They are the most satisfying breed of escapism I can imagine. And the more I read, the more I’m aware of the stories I love to slip into. Mysteries are thrilling journeys so far from my real life that they are comforting in their twists and turns. Women’s fiction allows me to adopt new friends, makes me feel understood. And Harry Potter, with its golden hue of magic and ever-present treacle tart, is the ultimate comfort blanket.
Around the holiday season, I’m especially on the prowl for a read that feels akin a warm mug of hot chocolate, and I successfully found it in The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.
The story starts in the small English town of Rye in 1914, just before the start of WWI. Beatrice Nash, a young (for our time, not theirs), independent woman, arrives in town to teach Latin in the local school. But not everyone in Rye is accepting of a female Latin teacher and Beatrice must prove her worth to its conservative inhabitants. Despite this setback, Beatrice quickly finds friendship in the sharp and witty Agatha Kent and her two grown nephews, the practical surgeon, Hugh Grange and the flighty, charismatic poet, Daniel Bookham. As the war approaches, the book follows this likable cast as they navigate the changing times.
Though it’s set before and partially during a horrific war, The Summer Before the War delivers everything I could want for a warm, holiday read. Don’t get me wrong: there is substance and sadness here too. But it is packed with charming old British manners and if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey like I am, you’ll understand why this is such a huge selling point. There is something deliciously delightful in reading about silk gloves, smelling salts, and the all-important propriety of early 20th-century England.
On top of this, there is romance, humor, and true human emotion. It is a story of love, every type of it. And if you’re a sucker for the holiday season like me and looking for a warm and comforting story to slip into, what more could you ask for?
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