I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year.
~ Edna St. Vincent Milay
For over 50 years, 84-year-old William Trevor has written about the passions simmering beneath the surface of a world where hens are fed, confessions are said and the clock on the scullery wall ticks out a time that passes slowly. Each of his beautiful, quiet, elegiac novels finds vividness in the ordinary, distinction in the everyday.
Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there. It was the young who left – for Dublin or Cork or Limerick, for England, sometimes for America. A lot came back. That nothing happened was an exaggeration too.
Set in the 1950’s in Rathmoye, a quiet rural town, Love and Summer contains all the tropes of a novel about small town life – a repressed spinster, a dead matriarch, sexual scandal and a mad man on the corner – but Trevor writes with such compassion and understanding, that he elevates a well-worn tale to a great work of art.
Love and Summer opens with the funeral of Mrs Connulty, matriarch of the town’s wealthiest family. Florian Kilderry, an amateur photographer, cycles in to town to take photographs but blocked by the funeral cortege, asks Ellie Dillahan for directions. So begins a soft, tender relationship that will last the summer until Florian sells his family home and travels abroad and Ellie returns to her older husband, a man she did not realise she did not love.
Ellie, a foundling, had been placed with Dillahan as a housekeeper after the tragic deaths of his first wife and child and they are now married and settled into a routine existence, each grateful for the companionship of the other if not really in love.
For a novel about an illicit affair, it is a quiet thing. But it is deceptively quiet. Trevor is capable of high drama, even of violence in a novel like Felicia’s Journey, but here he depicts the effects of forbidden love as part of a day-to-day existence, like the soft watercolour paintings of Florian’s deceased parents, gentle but showing an absolute truth. Naive and inexperienced, Ellie falls hard for Florian and it affects all aspects of her life.
In the crab-apple orchard she scattered grain and the hens came rushing to her. She hadn’t been aware that she didn’t love her husband.
She continues the daily routines, but underneath a flame has been ignited. Florian, for his part is a more careless lover. Flighty, unable to settle on what he wants to do, grieving for his childhood home and his Italian cousin who claimed his heart during adolescent summers years ago, he is not so much caddish and cruel as emotionally lazy. He wants to
prolong a friendship which summer had almost made an idyll of. . . . He had loved being loved, and knew too late that tenderness in return was not enough.
Unable to break the idyll he draws Ellie to the edge, to a point where she feels ready to leave with Florian, her simple plan beautifully described through the purchase of a green holdall and some cans of corned beef. It is testament to the compassion of Trevor’s writing that the reader doesn’t feel anger towards Florian, even when cast in the role of cruel heartbreaker. He is taking leave of his childhood home, of the town, of his country and for him, Ellie is only one part of a bigger goodbye.
Love and Summer may be a love story at heart, but it is also a story about loss. The dead hang heavy over Rathmoye, Dillahan’s first wife and child, Florian’s parents and Mrs Connulty and the characters react to death in different ways. The loss of place felt by Florian has resulted in a wish for exile, the wish to find a new place. Dillahan doesn’t want to escape the scene of his family’s death, he is happy to retreat there. Orpen Wren, the mad homeless librarian carries his home in his head, refusing to believe it is gone. The spare, moving language, perfectly judged sentences, the rhythms and cadences of the prose create a litany of bereavement that the characters are trying to emerge from.
Some do this more effectively than others, some even thrive in the aftermath of their loss. Miss Connulty, who proves an unusual ally to Ellie Dillahan in her romantic entanglements, sees freedom in her grief
Miss Connulty didn’t care any more. They could do what they liked: delicious death had been a richer compensation than she had ever dreamed of. She was in charge, and today she wore the pearls
They are all searching for freedom, or that little taste of it that is enough to nourish the soul. Miss Connulty finds it in the death of her mother, exorcising her past ‘troubles’ in the process. A minor character Bernadette, secretly in love with Miss Connulty’s brother finds it in her solitude,
In Hurley Lane, Bernadette O’Keaffe turned off a romantic drama and ended her day with a last long, slow nightcap. . It was her happy time, when what she had was enough and enough was what she asked for.
Florian finds it in escape. He literally burns his past on a bonfire of memories and his leave taking, which has been a long time coming means that his relationship with Ellie can only end. Ellie, of all the characters, doesn’t necessarily find freedom, but does find a place where she can be free – her compassion for her husband allows her to find her place and her purpose.
In the silent kitchen it came coldly to her that the tragedy of the man who had taken her into his house was more awful by far than love’s denial. It came like clarity in confusion, there was a certainty: it was too late. And it came coldly too, that the truth she yet might tell to draw the sting of his agony would cause more suffering than she could inflict, more than any man who had done no wrong deserved.
There are no great moments of drama or confrontation in Love and Summer, just normal people trying to do the best they can. Despite that, the tension in the last quarter of the book is often unbearable. It’s a subtle work, which reminded me a lot of the work of Kent Haruf as Trevor details the small rituals of daily life, the things that make us all human. Each character is so finely drawn, the detail so masterfully chosen that you feel like you know them. You want to look after them and tell them everything will be alright. And everything may be alright as Trevor suggests that if we can just find our place then that place will be enough.
This is an author at the height of his powers, who has written and elegy to love and to belonging. Through consummate storytelling, he reaches in to the heart of who we are and in turn leaves us marveling at his skill as a writer. This is a story that is as clear and warm as the peal of a bell, ringing true.
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