Seaside Book Club –
by Deborah Rogers –
Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War is set in a small English town in the summer of 1914. The author captures the feel of a quiet, closed society very well, with its small-minded and narrow worldview. She does this to give us the contrast of what happens when war explodes that tiny life and touches all the characters. And it is a big cast of characters, focusing primarily on a few well-to-do families, but also their staff and an assortment of small-town busybodies, gypsies, a pompous American writer, an educated and avowed spinster and some bohemian artists. The class system – with its appalling snobbery – was exposed as the biggest villain, interfering in all the character’s lives.
Simonson takes big themes including women’s rights, class, homosexuality and sex outside marriage, and she exposes the hypocrisy of the time through the microcosm of the small town of Rye. It is a substantial book, and that was the first complaint of some of our group of readers. There seemed to be so much scene setting before we got to the real substance of the story. It’s a shame as there were some really entertaining scenes, but they were overpowered by the slow, slow build-up to the real drama of the piece, which is when several central characters head over to France to fight, and the England they leave behind seems to fall apart.
It was a large group at our June meeting so there was a range of reactions and comments. We talked about how it was hard to read some of the outrageously conservative behaviour without applying our own modern standards to it. This meant that many of the women characters perhaps came across as weak, instead of put-upon or discriminated against. I had a soft spot for Aunt Agatha though, and Beatrice too, despite wanting to give her a good shake every now and then!
Overall I felt we all wanted more from the book, but in fewer pages. The characters were just so stereotyped, so “tweedy,” that at times it was hard to think of them as anything but parody. This
was made all the more apparent by the contrast in the final section, which was so movingly
written. We agreed that the book would adapt very well into a multi-part TV drama, that many of us would be keen to watch!
Thanks to everyone for sharing their views. We will not have a meeting in July, but join us on August 15 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Sidney North Saanich Library when we’ll be discussing Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen.
Visit www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club for more information and to sign up!
Book Club Q & A
Q How do you choose the books?
A The book selection is a little down to luck – each month the Sidney/North Saanich Library tries to get hold of a book club set for us to use. Availability is based on demand. So far we have had a choice between several titles each month, and have voted which one to use. Generally this will mean that people can leave the meeting with a copy of next month’s read. Book Club members can suggest titles they would be interested in reading from the VIRL book club sets list:
Q How do you structure the meeting?
A Members bring questions or discussion points with them, written down. These are put in a “hat” and drawn from to keep the discussion going. It leads to diverse questions and no need for anyone to feel self-conscious. The meeting is facilitated by Seaside Magazine’s Deborah and Sidney/North Saanich Library’s Virginia.
Q How do I stay up to date with Book Club happenings?
A Sign up for our mailing list and you’ll get meeting reminders by email. And follow us on Facebook to see everything that’s happening at Seaside Magazine!