A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone.
Simonson follows Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2010), her charming debut, with another comedy of manners nestled in a British village. This time she deepens the gravitas and fattens the story, which begins on the cusp of World War I. Pettigrew fans will cheer to find romance mentioned on the second page and class snobbery on the fourth. The heroine, Beatrice Nash, quickly follows, aboard a train bound for coastal Rye and a job teaching Latin in the village grammar school. This itself—a woman teacher in 1914—is a breach in tradition that foments small-town intrigue amid petticoats and decorated millinery. A pair of suffragettes mildly scandalizes the villagers, but Beatrice is more bedeviled by the politics of her financial dependency. An orphan at 23, she is self-aware but still green. Her patron, Agatha Kent, is bracketed by intriguing nephews Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, soon to be officers, and there is a smart local gypsy youth who stirs real feeling even as he lies to join the troops. Writing cleanly, Simonson has an observant eye and a comic touch, particularly in the person of a vainglorious American author, “swaying a little as the bulk of his torso sought equilibrium above two short legs and a pair of dainty feet.” She complicates Rye with the arrival of Belgian refugees and sends the reader, alongside key menfolk, into the lethal Flemish trenches. An epilogue touches down in summer 1920. The novel starts slowly—it takes until Page 282 for Beatrice to reach the classroom—and a few bromides clutter the denouement, but this book is beautifully plotted and morally astute. Even the callow American has his part to play.
Aficionados of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will sigh with pleasure.