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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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A Book A Week: The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

In The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson chronicles the summer of 1911 in England, one of the last peaceful summers before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Anyone who knows her history knows that the earliest part of the 20th century was a time of seismic transitions, not just because of the war, but because of the social changes: workers' rights, women's rights, the rise of the middle class.

Nicolson uses the summer of 1911 as a canvas on which she paints small portraits of the lives of different people (politicians, society matrons, butlers, poets) and events (the transport workers' strike, the coronation of George V and Queen Mary, that summer's unusually hot weather). It's an effective method of presenting these stories, though it does mean that there's no particular narrative arc other than that provided by the weather.

I found interesting parallels between society's mood in 1911 and what is happening this summer in the U.S. and in England. Extreme weather, the gap between rich and poor, and women's issues are front and center in both years, while the 1911 coronation and, in 2012, the London Olympics, provide us with royal entertainment. This book was published in 2007, so that obviously wasn't Nicolson's intention, but it adds to the reading experience.

So do you have to be an Anglophile to enjoy this book? Not especially, but it helps to know some British history. On the other hand, you can skip the parts that are boring without losing anything in the rest of the book. I confess to skimming all the stuff about the changes in the House of Lords, for example, but really enjoyed Nicolson's portrayal of Queen Mary and her descriptions of the lives of women factory workers.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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