If you're considering buying The Last Summer, there's a good chance you'll already have an idea of the (relatively) familiar setting and the kind of book it is. To be honest, the only reason I ever read reviews like this is if I'm undecided on purchasing the book, or have just finished it and am interested in what others thought. If you fall into the former category, then let me first off wholeheartedly recommend you take the plunge and buy it. As to why - well, here are some of the elements which, for me, made it thoroughly enjoyable.
The love story that unfolds between Clarissa Granville and Tom Cuthbert is as tempestuous and engrossing a tale as you could wish to lose yourself in and, as such, is beset by appropriately daunting obstacles. The story twist and turns, just as you'd expect, and I enjoyed guessing the odd point that I thought I'd seen being flagged up ("is that a gun on the wall, Mr Chekov?") though most of these came as a pleasing surprise and the last of all elicited a proper "No!" from me.
Obviously World War One has been mined countless times as material for stories like The Last Summer, but there were details in this that I had either never heard of - such as the blue notes Clarissa encounters while working as a nurse - or had simply never considered, like the developing atmosphere on the streets as news of the long-awaited armistice broke.
There is some really beautiful writing here, lyrical and intelligent, often capturing moments of emotional complexity. A passage describing unexpected reactions to the news of yet more men killed at war, from a populace already swamped in grief and running out of ways to absorb it was, to me, particularly striking and effective. Similarly, the novel concludes on an observation that is at once poignant, thought-provoking and very uplifting.
What really made The Last Summer a great pleasure though, was the deft humour with which the characters were endowed and the story handled. In the last third of the book, the author is brave enough to let the plot breathe for a chapter and send Clarissa off on a clandestine drive to Deyning, her former home, tiptoeing through the bushes to the boathouse where she and Tom have shared past trysts. It advances the story, but is moreover a wonderfully funny interlude, with the heroine mortified at being taken for an intruder who's sneaked into the great house intent on an illicit paddle (I'm not giving away the author's own phrase here as it's brilliant).
I mentioned the familiarity of the setting - WWI aside, there are echoes of Heathcliff and Cathy (the socially inferior lover), Brideshead (the sprawling, baroque country house with a character all its own), and the lovers in the boathouse brought to mind Alec Scudder and the titular protagonist of Maurice. Yet as fun as it is to note these, Judith Kinghorn's tale and her storytelling feel as fresh as a daisy and the best reason of all I can give you to buy this is that it is a deeply satisfying and rewarding read.