A Welcome Escape to England on the Brink

  • imgres-4The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A young schoolteacher arrives in Rye as the townspeople reconcile to the inevitability of WWI. Simonson paints an engaging portrait of Sussex society and the class and gender stereotypes against which the characters rail.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: England, France
  • Time: 1914-15
  • Read this to travel back in time. Simonson’s attention to detail in setting, character, and story make this a terrific novel to read and share.

Beatrice Nash traveled the world with her father, a writer and educator, learning from him and running their household.  After his death, Beatrice is placed in the guardianship of distant relatives. When she spurns the offer of marriage encouraged by her relatives, she must set out on her own and secures a position as the Latin instructor in the Sussex village of Rye.

Even before alighting from the train, Beatrice is introduced fellow resident of Rye. One by one, the reader meets the local residents – from the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. Agatha Kent is her champion and sounding board, ensuring the stability of her position and introducing her throughout the community.

Married but childless, Agatha and her husband have parented their two nephews, Daniel a poet, and Hugh on the verge of completing his surgical studies. As World War I threatens, each prepares for the future. After the invasion of Belguim, the village bands together to resettle refugees. Beatrice does her part and then some, despite her limited means. Simonson’s array of village residents play a part in all the community locales from the fields to the school to the vicarage, providing a wonderful sense of place.


The latter section of the book takes a number of Rye’s men to the front in France. The descriptions are suitably grim and homefront conflicts resurface, disproving that all men are equal in the trenches.

World War I in many ways delineates the end of the European aristocracy. Helen Simonson rich descriptions and deft hand with character development turn the written page into theater. Simonson captured the changing roles of women, particularly as the men leave for war.  Beatrice, Daniel, and Hugh each wrestle with personal relationships that are key to their characters and to the progression of the plot. The Summer Before the War is a rich and fulfilling novel. With it and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson has established herself as an author to add to your personal watch list.  


Erik Larson brings history to life

  • Unknown-1Dead Wake by Erik Larson (Crown Publishing Group, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Larson paints a bold picture of the events that led up to the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyzing event to the US eventually entering WWI. Politics, culture, seamanship and warfare all have their place in this compelling narrative.
  • Genre: Narrative nonfiction
  • Locale: US, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Atlantic Ocean
  • Time: 1915
  • Read this for an understanding of the US and its place in the world in 1915 told in a captivating way.

Erik Larson occupies a rare place among those writing histories. His books bring the era, events and people to life with a 360-degree view. Like a classically structured Shakespearian play, there is a progression in five acts. In the first, Larson introduces the players in this drama. They include a bereaved President Wilson, the young Winston Churchill, world-class shipbuilders and seamen, newlyweds, seasoned travellers, a woman architect, bankers, booksellers and more. Through his research, Larson has brought together rich gleanings from journals, letters and other archival material as well as the scholarship of others.

By Part II, the story shifts between the Lusitania, the U-boat seeking to destroy it, and the British intelligence office tracking the movements of this dance. As the Lusitania moves towards England the passengers are certain that the British Navy will ensure their safety, unaware that there are political forces interested in using the Lusitania as a pawn to draw the US into the war. At home, President Wilson is coming out of a deep Depression, largely due to Edith Galt entering his life. Much of America wants nothing to do with the war in Europe and sees no role for the US in the conflict.


As in Shakespeare, Part III is the heat of the action and Larson takes the reader inside the U-boat, on the ship and in the war rooms on the day the Lusitania is torpedoed. As he has earlier, Larson includes text of telegrams and logs chronicling the action.

Part IV details the actual impact and the resulting effects. Human stories of those on the Lusitania and those on land who strove to save them. Well-acquainted with many of the passengers and crew, the descriptions of chaos and heroism are compelling.

Part V and the Epilogue deal with the aftermath – those who are blamed and those who actually are responsible.

It is a measure of his talent that many dedicated readers of fiction find Larson’s storytelling more vivid than many favorite novels. Ideal for book discussions, the richness of the cultural landscape he describes is as worthy of conversation as the political and nautical events that are the centerpiece of the book. If you choose this as your first Larson title, I predict it won’t be your last.

Irène Némirovsky’s Look at Life Between the Wars

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  • UnknownThe Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (Vintage International, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Through the lives of three interconnected families, the many changes to France’s working- and middle-class from WWI to the early days of WWII are shown. Némirovsky’s keen eye for the import of social status carries the story.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily Paris
  • Time: 1912-1941
  • Read this for a character-driven tour of the vast changes in daily life over the quarter-century between WWI and WWII.

Irène Némirovsky came to fame in the US more than 60 years after her death in Auschwitz in 1942. Russian and Jewish by birth in 1903, she fled to France after the Revolution and saw herself as French, though never accorded citizenship. Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. She received acclaim for her novels during her life though some were criticized as anti-Semitic. While three novels were published posthumously in France after the war, the discovery of the manuscript of Suite Française by her daughter in the late 1990’s led to the publication of it, and many of her other works, both in French and in translation.

The Fires of Autumn, written as World War II loomed, is reflective of the many changes in the early decades of the 20th century. Three families, the Jacquelains, the Bruns, and the Humberts, all have children whose choices are altered by the advent of WWI. Rather than opening his medical office, Martial enlists as a military doctor on the front. This “heroic” choice leads to an unexpected engagement with Thérèse. And Bernard, the scion of the Jacquelain family, destined for the university, enlists as soon as he is of age, shortly after Martial’s death.


Bernard returns jaded from the war, disinterested in his family’s aspirations or concerns for him. Quickly caught up in the hedonism emblematic of the 1920s, he connects with wheeler-dealer new style businessman changing the course of his life. He marries Thérèse and through their relationship and the interaction with their families and childhood friends, the fracturing of many societal norms are seen.

Having found Suite Française overwhelming, I was hesitant about reading The Fires of Autumn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Némirovsky tells a good story and her characters are well-formed. The strength of The Fires of Autumn is the timing of the telling of the story. As seen in her life choices, Némirovsky knows all too well that politics can alter fortunes in mere moments and that choosing sides can exact a heavy price. While at times the dramatics of Némirovsky’s life receive more attention than her writings, The Fires of Autumn is a good reason for her inclusion among noteworthy writers of pre-WWII France.


‘The Girl You Left Behind’ captures the evocative power of art

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  • Unknown-10The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Penguin Books, 2012)
  • In 40 words or less: A portrait ties together two young women and their absent husbands. A thought-provoking story of love, art, ownership and restitution.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: France and London
  • Time: 1916 and Present
  • Read this for a classic story interwoven with contemporary issues of ownership, morality and the transformative power of art.

Jojo Moyes first made a splash on the US book scene in 2012 with her novel Me Before You. With a longstanding reputation in Great Britain, two additional titles were released here later in 2012, The Girl You Left Behind and its prequel novella, Honeymoon in Paris. Were it not for a book group requesting a discussion on The Girl You Left Behind, I might have missed it. I’m glad I didn’t.

Moyes immediately immerses the reader in the life of Sophie Lefèvre, a young woman struggling with her sister and brother to get by while the Germans occupy their French village in October 1916. Sophie, strong and independent, had lived in Paris, meeting her artist husband, Edouard, there while she was a shopgirl. When he left for the Army, she returned to the village to help her sister whose husband was goners well. The Germans commandeered almost everything, leaving the residents with little to eat and few possessions. The sisters’ inn, stripped of almost all furniture, was required to prepare and serve meals to the troops billeted in the town. While charged with preparing the food, the family, which included a baby and the daughter of a woman taken by the Germans, had to account for every morsel of food served.

The only item of value left in the home was a painting of Sophie by Edouard, an Impressionist. The portrait was imbued with all the love Edouard felt for his wife and served as a promise of their future together. The Kommandant was taken by the painting and was prepared to go to great lengths in the hope of acquiring it. And Sophie would put herself in great peril for the chance to reunite with Edouard.

The story shifts to present-day London where Liv Halston is a young widow, living in the Glass House designed by her late husband David, a renowned architect. Liv is frozen in her grief, the only softness in her life is the portrait David purchased for her while they honeymooned in Paris. A chance meeting with an ex-pat American involved in art restitution sets off a chain of events upending both their lives and demanding that the fate of the Lefèvres be known.

Don’t for a minute think this is merely a story of time-linked romances. Moyes presents the legal and emotional issues associated with art restitution, carefully facebook_placeholdermaking the Holocaust a minor player. By doing so the visceral attachment people have to art, as contrasted with its possible market value, is elevated. Moyes is acutely aware that most restitution claims arise from German confiscation of art owned by Jews and brings that into the story as a means of bringing moral gravitas to the debate about ownership and redress.

With carefully constructed plot twists, The Girl You Left Behind held my interest to final page. Moyes’s deft hand in tackling fundamental issues rises well above many popular novels.