In the summer of 1914, Clarissa Granville is almost seventeen years old and lives at Deyning Park, her family’s country estate. For Clarissa, her brothers and their friends, it’s a summer of parties, tennis games, walking by the lake, playing croquet, and having a good time. It’s also the summer when Clarissa meets Tom Cuthbert, the housekeeper’s son who is home from university. The two soon fall in love but their romance is in trouble from the start, as they both know that Clarissa’s parents will never allow her to marry the son of a servant. Then suddenly everything changes: Britain is at war and Clarissa’s whole world is altered forever.
So many different aspects of World War I are covered over the course of the novel, though with the story being told from Clarissa’s perspective the focus is on the effects of the war on British society and on the people left at home while their loved ones are away fighting. After the war is over we see how the world has become a very different place. We meet men who are trying to cope with the injuries and disabilities they’ve been left with, and the women who are trying to understand and to help them, as well as coming to terms with the loss of all the husbands, brothers, sons and fathers who never came home.
One of the biggest changes to Clarissa’s life is that the class structure that was in place before the war has been broken down. Many rich families like the Granvilles are left struggling financially, unable to afford to keep big houses like Deyning and all the servants they used to have. People who had previously felt secure in their comfortable, privileged lifestyles find themselves desperately trying to find a place in a new and unfamiliar world. But through it all, Clarissa will always remember that final perfect summer of 1914.
Although the story is narrated by Clarissa, we are also given occasional fragments of letters written by unnamed characters. These letters give us a different perspective on things, including some glimpses of life in France during the war, but who is writing them? It’s all revealed eventually and by the time you reach the end of the novel I can almost guarantee you’ll want to go back and read the letters again – they’ll make more sense the second time round.
The Last Summer is a beautifully written novel and one that I really enjoyed. I liked the characters, the time period is one of my favourites to read about, and Clarissa is a lovely, engaging narrator. Clarissa and Tom’s relationship is an interesting one to follow because nothing ever goes smoothly for them and so many obstacles are thrown in the way of their love. Not only are they separated by the war, they also face a lot of other problems including their differences in class and background, Clarissa’s disapproving mother, and their relationships with other people. I desperately wanted them to find happiness together but it was difficult to see how that could ever happen, and I will leave you to discover for yourself whether the book has a happy ending or not.
The Last Summer is my second book for the War Through the Generations reading challenge.