The Last Summer. Judith Kinghorn. NAL Trade. December 2012. 464 pp. ISBN#: 9780451416636.
Clarissa Granville introduces the reader to idyllic world of her home, Deyning Park, an English country home of the aristocracy. She spends her days learning to be the proper English wife of another upper class gentleman but the majority of her early story concerns her long, rambling walks around the estate. It’s a dreamy, solitary world she loves which is beginning to be tainted by talk of impending war in Europe (WWI). Early on in the novel, she falls in love with a servant’s son, Tom Cuthbert. Tom is the “bastard” child who because of that association has been granted the unheard of privilege of attending Oxford University to prepare for a career in law. Clarissa’s mother does everything in her power to block this “friendship” from growing but impressively fails to deny what has already grown roots. Clarissa’s father is sidetracked by failing finances, unknown to the rest of the family, and her brothers are intent on living life to the fullest and then doing one’s patriotic duty for England in the War.
Clarissa’s romance bears tragic consequences and her friends manage to help her repress her tremendous depression with parties, drink and “morphia.” But eventually it all comes crashing down, along with other terrible losses, exemplified by stark descriptions of the battle fields abroad teeming with blood, gas, life-altering wounds and death in all its grisly reality.
The novel continues to progress from that naive dreamlike state to an almost surrealistic brutality in which every character’s life is dramatically, emphatically changed forever. But love will survive and it does so for Clarissa and Tom in spite of marriages, separation by an ocean and years, and the interfering efforts of well-intentioned but hypocritical family members who preach what they do not practice.
The novel is obviously well-researched regarding WWI and its effects on members of all classes. What is particularly outstanding about this story, however, is the beautiful quality of Kinghorn’s prose which parallels the mental and emotional ambiance of each time period portrayed before, during and after the war. While some have compared this novel to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this reviewer found the similar aspects of both novels to be more credible herein as the gaiety is more of a desperate attempt at escapism than anything else, not really a celebration in any true sense of the term.
While the characters may be somewhat stereotypical, the complex plot of this novel is extraordinary and holds the reader mesmerized from the first to last page. Extraordinary historical fiction and highly recommended.