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Fluff! was my initial reaction to the opening chapters of Helen Simonson’s comedy of manners, The Summer Before the War (2016). It is 1914, set in the coastal village of Rye, East Sussex, England.

Slowly unfolds a view of waning Edwardian society, with its opulent mores defining attitudes and behaviors of its residents. Comic touches abound, exposing their eccentricities and gossip and prejudices. Detailed descriptions of feathered hats and gowns, the annual Hops Festival, the Fete Parade, the society funeral for the only son of the Earl North, trench warfare, the grimy feel of railway stations, and so much more, afford texture of place. Like other comedies of errors, dialogue is precise, stilted, disguised, but at times compelling.

Only when the voices of matron Agatha Kent and the village’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lay bare the gamey shenanigans around them was I compelled to read on; and of the later voices of the servant Abigail and the gypsies, as well. And I’m glad I did. Also affording context to this novel is the suffragette movement, the changing role of women in society, and homosexuality. I grew to care for Agatha and Beatrice, both venturing into vital experiences that deepen their sense of woman and quicken the worlds of others.

What follows is the rude interruption of the village’s predictable world with the onset of the Great War—Their summer of balmy channel breezes was not supposed to be like this.

I pray that this is not the summer before the war. Given rains that freshen greening leaves and lawns, I hope such waterings will l dampen fires of global discord and enhance critical changes confronting us—with God’s help. No one needs another war…

 

 

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