“The Summer Before the Storm” by Gabriele Wills is the first of “The Muskoka Novels” series. Because the setting is Muskoka, Ontario, I found this an appealing location for a book.
The Wyndhams are a wealthy family, their wealth built on the lumber industry in northern Ontario. They live in Toronto and vacation each summer on Wyndwood Island in Muskoka. This vacation tradition is many years old and is loved by the Wyndham family. The story line begins in 1914 before the First World War, and one suspects from the beginning that the “Storm” in the book title will be the war itself, although there are “storms” (conflicts) on many levels in the book. For the Wyndhams and many other wealthy families, it is an era of decadence, opulence, and social snobbery.
Jack, a previously unknown grandson, begins working as a waiter in a hotel, The Grand Muskoka, located on one of Muskoka’s islands. He subsequently reveals his identity to his grandmother, Augusta, who is the controlling matriarch of the family and of the family business. The family learns that Jack is the son of Augusta’s favourite son, estranged and now dead, and since the estrangement, her son’s family has been living in poverty. Augusta has never gotten over the sorrow of the estrangement and has always hoped her son would return home.
Jack who, from his father, heard stories of the family sees a chance to improve his own situation as well as that of his mother and siblings. The unfairness shown to his father as well as Jack’s own sense of entitlement have brought him to Muskoka. He plans to marry well, perhaps into the Wyndham family (his sights are on his cousin, Victoria, who is drawn to him), and join the family business.
The Wyndham family’s guilt, in addition to Jack’s personal charisma and persistence, opens the door for Jack to live with the family and be introduced to the family business. Augusta sees potential in Jack, and as she is not impressed with the business sense of any of her children or grandchildren, with the possible exception of Victoria, she begins to pin her hopes on Jack. Because Augusta controls the family money, she also controls the family. Some of the family are supportive of Augustine’s decision regarding Jack; others are suspicious and feeling threatened.
But things are changing socially. It was an era when everything was under scrutiny and change: politics, religion, moral values, women’s issues and rights. Communism and Bohemian lifestyles are introduced. And then an Archduke was assassinated in Austria, and the world was plunged into war. The war—both feared and experienced—directly affected the lives of the Wyndham family and their friends. Victoria and Chas, Victoria’s star-crossed lover, are especially traumatized in this story.
I enjoyed the northern setting of the first part of the novel. Muskoka is rightly presented as a beautiful area of Ontario, and that era of history is fascinating. The author has well presented the upheaval and desolation that war brought. The interjection into the story of historically influential individuals and events is well researched and interesting. I can’t say that the plot is unusual, and I don’t think reading it has improved my mind, but it did hold my interest and was a good reminder and teacher of this era in Canada’s history.
The book has a plethora of characters and a complicated story line, both of which are probably pre-requisites for a novel series. Keeping the characters straight was a challenge. The author has, however, provided a character list and has done a credible job of explaining, as part of the story, the relationships of the characters within families as well as the families within the cottage community.
Not being a fan of vulgar language and explicit sexual descriptions, I did find parts of the novel disturbing. It has a multi-layered, multi-faceted story line, with several protagonists, which will lend itself to a series. I was disappointed in the ending of the novel, although it certainly does effectively provide a hook into the second book.