When I saw the gorgeous boat on the cover of this book and found out that it was mostly set amongst summer cottages on a lake, I knew that it was a book that I had to read. Several generations of my family spend the summer together at a remote lake cottage on an island and although our area is not quite like Muskoka, I could vividly picture the life they led, the dramas that played out, and the feeling of belonging that the area and cottage inspired. Set during the Age of Elegance in Canada in the easy lull just before the world erupted into the horrible and deadly World War I, Gabriele Wills' The Summer Before the Storm is an engrossing look at lives of privilege and entitlement and the ways in which their world is already changing irreparably.
Focused primarily on the extended Wyndham family, the novel opens with a handsome and audacious waiter bending down and whispering something into the ear of the proper and wholey class conscious matriarch of the very wealthy family, something that makes grandmother Augusta Wyndham blanch. The waiter, it seems, is a Wyndham, the eldest child of the disowned but still much mourned and beloved youngest son Alex. With Jack's bold introduction to the family, tensions between the Wyndhams will tighten and strain. His advent foreshadows the coming conflict acoss the ocean and marks the start of the last "normal" summer at the cottage and Muskoka. Although Augusta is willing to accept the advent of this son of her rogue son, she is a canny and observant woman and she keeps a close eye on the goings on around her. Jack is a schemer and having spent his entire life thus far in poverty, he is determined to not only get into his fabulously wealthy family's good graces but to stay in their monied bosom forever more. And to that end, he chooses his cousin Victoria, a young woman testing the boundaries of propriety and taste, a new breed of freer woman, and clearly the apple of her grandmother's eye despite her outspokeness and forward thinking, modern choices.
The summer passes slowly and lazily as the Wyndhams and their social set, including those not entirely acceptable to them except in the more relaxed atmosphere of Muskoka, embark on their usual summer amusements: a regatta, a swimming contest, tennis matches, canoeing, parties, swimming, and endless visiting amongst the myriad of privately owned islands in the lake. New adult relationships are formed, unwelcome news is uncovered and brushed firmly back under the rug; the Wyndham grandchildren are growing older and becoming adults; the long-standing tensions between the remaining Wyndham sons and their wives escalates with sharp words and frequent spats. New neighbors are met and folded into the social fabric of the lake society. And the myriad of servants face their own belowstairs dramas. In short, aside from the advent of Jack's coming, which has supercharged the atmosphere, the summer of 1914 is little different from previous summers until the July announcement of war, when reality intrudes on this shangri-la.
The book is sweeping and epic in scale and feel with a marvelous grandeur of times past. It is hard to get into in the beginning because the cast of characters is altogether overwhelming. There are a full four and a half pages for the character list before the novel even begins and although many of them don't enter the book until later, it is a challenge to keep the early characters straight until they are well and fully introduced. But once the story focuses on fewer members of the family, really those whose lives will carry the story (and ostensibly the further two books in the trilogy), the confusion settles down and the reader can settle into an engrossing and addictive read.
The languor and indolence of the monied class and their complete insularity is brilliantly captured here as is the strict insistence on maintaining the illusion of elitism. The young generation is striving to break the tighter propriety bonds that stifle them and there is certainly a rising awareness of social inequity and a desire to make the world a better place. As the war blows into the lives of this community, everything shifts and changes with the young men joining up and leaving for England and the young women left at home, at least initially, to carry on in a world changed forever. The historical detail here is marvelous and complete. The beginning of the book is slow and fluid feeling but the end pelts along at an increased clip and time feels compressed as indeed it must have with the war raging. The ending felt more like a cliffhanger before book two than a completion but that's a minor quibble and I look forward to revisiting the altered lives of the Wyndhams, Victoria in particular. Historical fiction readers will sink into this tale, happily immersed in the end of an era that is marching relentlessly into a terrible and costly war.
For more about Gabriele Wills or the book, check out her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or view the book trailer. You can follow the rest of the book tour or see what others have had to say about the book here and you can purchase the entire trilogy at Mindshadows.