The Last Summer
NAL Trade / December 31, 2012 / $16.00 print, $9.99 digital
I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken...It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle epoque...
In July of 1914, innocent, lovely Clarissa Granville lives with her parents and three brothers in the idyllic isolation of Deyning Park, a grand English country house, where she whiles away her days enjoying house parties, country walks and tennis matches. Clarissa is drawn to Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper's handsome son. Though her parents disapprove of their upstairs-downstairs friendship, the two are determined to see each other, and they meet in secret to share what becomes a deep and tender romance. But soon the winds of war come to Deyning, as they come to all of Europe. As Tom prepares to join the front lines, neither he nor Clarissa can envision what lies ahead of them in the dark days and years to come. Nor can they imagine how their love will be tested, or how they will treasure the memory of this last, perfect summer.
Judith Kinghorn's The Last Summer will be touted as perfect for Downton Abbey fans—the pre-war setting, the country house, the star (class)-crossed lovers—but this bittersweet tale reminds me more of Atonement than Downton's lavish soapyness. Narrated in the first person by Clarissa, who begins the story as a sheltered teenager, The Last Summer is soaked through with atmosphere and portents of what is to come. The linchpin upon which the novel turns is Clarissa's burgeoning love for Tom. He is the housekeeper's son (and is of mysterious antecedents), and despite his being permitted to socialize with the inhabitants of Deyning Park, the bounds of class still rule late Edwardian society...
Half an hour or so later, when I entered the drawing room, he was there, looking extraordinarily dapper, and sitting in front of the fire with Venetia and Jimmy. He glanced over at me, nervously, and I smiled. It was strange to see him there, in that room, dressed for dinner. There he was: one of us.
The outbreak of war comes swiftly, and Tom and Clarissa rashly promise to wait for one another, a promise that will be tested by her mother's disapproval of the match, the deaths of young men she holds dear, and the right man from the right class who is considered a proper suitor. We see the changing landscape of England only through Clarissa's eyes, and her confusion and inexperience cause her to make a number of missteps that sorrowfully impact her life.
We soon move beyond the war to the 1920s, where Clarissa and Tom continue to dance around one another, and family fortunes rise and fall. The single, haunting mistake Clarissa made during the war envelopes her every interaction with him to the point where readers may grow frustrated with her angst. The secondary romance, seen only in snippets of letters between an unknown couple at the end of each chapter, shadow Clarissa and Tom's relationship, and the revelation of its author will be surprising. The Last Summer is a dense and luscious read that is emotionally gripping and at times unsettling, but is a powerful tale of love, regret, and both the loss of Clarissa's innocence and that of England's.
Evangeline Holland is a writer of historical romances, an amateur milliner, and a really great cook. When not writing or reading, you can find her blogging about the Edwardian era on her website, the aptly titled Edwardian Promenade.