September 28, 2009

William Trevor: Love and Summer

Posted in Trevor William at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve never understood the high praise which seems to greet each new book by William Trevor. Having read a couple of collections of his stories, and three longer works (My House in Umbria, Felicia’s Journey, The Story of Lucy Gault), I’ve thought of him as an efficient sketcher of lives of quiet desperation, but otherwise – well, otherwise I haven’t thought of him much. Nonetheless I am wildly susceptible to hype, and when his Booker-longlisted novel Love and Summer was published to critical delight, I thought I might like to read it after all. This feeling was galvanized when I saw Eileen Battersby, Literary Correspondent of the Irish Times, enter an hysteria of grief over its omission from the shortlist. In a short article, she laments the loss no fewer than eight times. (She also gets wrong the name of Hilary Mantel’s last novel as well as the number of novels Mantel has published, and mistakenly calls The Quickening Maze Adam Foulds’ fiction debut. Grief does funny things to people.)

William Trevor: Love and Summer

Love and Summer is set in the fictional Irish town of Rathmoye around the late 1950s. It depicts a tiny ripple or flaw in the fabric of an otherwise eventless summer.

Compact and ordinary, it was a town in a hollow that had grown up there for no reason that anyone knew or wondered about. … Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there.

In fact, “that nothing happened was an exaggeration.” The book shows that things have been happening to people, even if not spoken about, for decades: and they will go on happening. As the book begins, Mrs Connulty, the matriarch of a family central to life in Rathmoye, has died. The late Mrs Connulty “had been disappointed in her husband and her daughter,” and even her beloved son, Joseph Paul, did not achieve his ambition to become a priest. “The vocation slipped away from him, lost beneath the weight of his mother’s doubt that he would make a success of the religious life. In the end her doubt became his own.” His sister, whom we know only as ‘Miss Connulty’, is buttoned-up, for reasons initially unspecified (“She had been young when the trouble happened. She hadn’t let herself go when it was over. She hadn’t since”).

The Connultys are not the only family haunted by the past. Dillihan, the farmer, is crippled with guilt and shame over the death of his wife and child many years ago (“on Sundays he went to early Mass because it was less crowded”), but has since remarried, to Ellie, a girl introduced as a housekeeper: “We’ll try her so,” he said to his sisters. Ellie, for her part, felt “it was a kindness when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.” But she is young and perhaps with unacknowledged ambitions of a life greater than Rathmoye can offer, and feels with a special heaviness the weight of its stagnant days:

She sat in the yard in one of the kitchen chairs, with her tea and the Nenagh News. A pickaxe had been found in the boot of a car when its driver was arrested, declared drunk. Ore had been discovered near Toomyvara; Killeen’s Pride had won twice at Ballingarry. Top prices were being paid for ewes.

This seemingly gentle depiction or rural life even affords a moment of comedy – more against the reader’s expectations than the town’s way of life – when after the funeral, Ellie can’t go back to the Connulty house because “the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.” It is Ellie who notices a stranger in the town during Mrs Connulty’s funeral. He is Florian Kilderry, from nearby Castledrummond. Half-Italian, with artist parents (both dead), he’s an exotic bird in Rathmoye, cycling around the town taking photographs.

Much more than that would reveal the heart of the story, though the central connection is not difficult to guess. So it is, as expected, to some extent a story of quiet desperation, as Florian, “in spite of tenderness, in spite of affection for a girl he hardly knew, [...] made a hell for her.” But it is full of lovely things, fleeting moments such as the sequence of thoughts about Florian which distract Ellie from her conversation, and a series of intercut scenes where Connulty brother and sister work through their own reflections on Miss Connulty’s determination to come between Florian and Ellie. It would be nice to say that this is because her mother has just died, and grief does funny things to people, but this hunger in Miss Connulty is a sort of vicarious revenge for what was done to her in her youth: “the time for pain was over, yet her wish was that it should not be, that there should always be something left – a wince, a tremor, some part of her anger that was not satisfied.”

As a tale of how the past and future unfold from the present, and how each affects the other, it could be predictable – to some extent, is – but the slightness is appropriate to the subject matter of high emotions played out in a low-key style, and of unspoken memories. A weak link is the character of Orpen Wren, an elderly man with a dementia-type condition, who circuits the town seeking answers and getting nowhere (“it can’t be much of a joke,” says one of the townspeople of him, “your memory turned inside-out for you”). His primary purpose as a character seems to be providing a sitcom-style moment of anticipation and bathos, when his confused words strike Dillahan with horror. However he does remind us that memories turned inside-out might be less troublesome than those which are so strong and true, that they continue to cause pain and problems for decades to come.

About these ads

29 Comments »

  1. Lisa Hill said,

    Oh shame…The Story of Lucy Gault is one of the most haunting books of our time!
    Lisa Hill

    http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com

  2. John Self said,

    Sorry to disappoint, Lisa! In fact I can’t remember a single thing about Lucy Gault (whereas I can about Felicia’s Journey), so with my new-found liking for Trevor I might even revisit it at some point and end up agreeing with you…

  3. Carole said,

    John I’m so glad it wasn’t just me that though Eileen Battersby had gone a bit OTT.

  4. John Self said,

    To be fair to Battersby, Carole, it looked to me like a piece that had been written in about 15 minutes to meet the paper’s deadline (hence no time to check some facts). I think the presence of Love and Summer on the shortlist would have been perfectly reasonable, but I don’t agree with her that its absence was some sort of travesty which needed reiterating again and again. She might also have been aggrieved because – let’s face it – with seven years between his last two novels, it’s possible that this was Trevor’s last chance to win the Booker.

    (An aside. On checking Wikipedia just now for the seven years figure, I see that Trevor’s full name is William Trevor Cox. He has exhibited as a sculptor under the name Trevor Cox. I never knew that.)

    • Lee Monks said,

      Great review. I like Trevor and I’m sure I’d like this (I thought both Lucy Gault and Felicia’s Journey were very good) but there is nothing about a new Trevor to get my pulse pounding. I think his shorter fiction is where his strength lies, for many reasons. He’s better as someone marshalling a few well-placed paragraphs as opposed to as a writer of novels, which always end up feeling slightly forced and samey.

    • Irene L said,

      Can anyone offer some questions to be used in our book club. Our current book is Love in Summer William Trevor

      Thanks Irene

  5. Tony S. said,

    To really appreciate William Trevor, you must, must read his early work. His early work such as “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake” or “The Ballroom of Romance” were lively, busy, upbeat, and happy. As he has gotten older, Trevor has gotten more rural, somber, sparse, and sadder.
    BTW, I have opened my own book site at :

    http://anokatony.wordpress.com/

    Hope to see you all there.

  6. John Self said,

    Thanks for the recommendations Tony, and great to see you with your own blog. Don’t forget you can make your name into a link to your blog by going to My Account > Edit Profile and putting the address into your profile under “Website.”

  7. Lee Monks said,

    Yes, I do only have a handle on latter Trevor, novel-wise. Oh, so many books etc. I’d love to trawl through the Trevor and chart his growing melancholia.

  8. I quite enjoyed this book, I think in much the same way that you did. It has a very pleasing “pace” to it, despite the increasingly gloomy subject matter as the story progresses. I very much like your phrase “a flaw in the fabric” as a description — Trevor is frequently compared (as a short story writer) to Alice Munro and this is a device that both of them don’t hesitate to explore.

  9. kimbofo said,

    Oh, I’m with Lisa, I loved Lucy Gault. I was completely devastated by it, I found it that affecting.

    And I loved Felicia’s Journey. It was creepy as hell and got under the skin. And was typically heartbreaking.

    I haven’t got around to reading my copy of Love and Summer yet but will look forward to it.

  10. Mary said,

    I’d like to praise some of Trevor’s earlier novels too. `The Children of Dynmouth’ `Elizabeth Alone’ `Mrs Eckdorff…’ He’s good at describing people who are marginalised without the material or social wherewithal they once had. Sometimes I confuse his novels with those of Brian Moore – they often write about similar themes and confusingly both wrote novels based on the Constance Kent murder. ( In fact the Moore version was more powerful). Didn’t like `Felicia’s Journey’ though – I felt his characters and observations were less convincing than usual . His latest novel sounds like a return to form.

  11. John Self said,

    As you probably know Mary, I’m a big fan of Brian Moore, but I didn’t realise that he had written a novel based on the Constance Kent murder. Indeed, I’ve never heard of the Constance Kent murder, though I presume that Trevor’s version was Felicia’s Journey. I’m trying mentally to go through Moore’s novels and work out which one it could be. Maybe one of the ones I haven’t read yet? (The Great Victorian Collection, The Mangan Inheritance, Cold Heaven, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes. Actually I think it must be the last. Now you’ve ruined it for me!)

    • Mary said,

      I had a senior moment – ( late night blog post Breton evening class). The Constance Kent murder at Hill House was a real life Victorian murder described in the recent book by Kate Summerscale `The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. William Trevor alluded to it in one of his earlier novels `Other People’s Worlds’. The other writer who based a novel on this `cause celebre’ was Francis King in his book `Act of Darkness’ not Brian Moore at all. ( the action was moved from the West country to colonial India) Like you though, I am a Brian Moore fan and I also like Francis King – somehow all three were circulating in my head!

  12. Sam said,

    This book’s really stayed with me. Everyone in the book – Ellie, Dillahan, Miss Connulty, even the woman who kept the keys for the burnt-out cinema – had sacrificed something, or let go of someone, for the sake of other people. So it seemed to me that Trevor was talking about the need for kindness in our lives, to remember that other people are as real as you, and that perhaps the only kind of life worth living is one where it’s better to suffer quietly yourself than it is to cause others any undue pain. In our more individualistic times it’s perhaps a message worth listening to.

  13. Lee Monks said,

    Amen. I must say, I love writers who kill you quietly, as Trevor does. You can see that the editing process must be painstaking. The end result goes straight in and hits you. Like Carver in some ways.

  14. Kaosar said,

    I agree with your description of the story being of a “quiet desperation.” One can sense while reading that though the words, the pace, and tone are clam there is still an urgency, a silent struggle all throughout.

    Though, I can’t agree with your general opinion of Trevor’s work, since this is the first work I’ve read by him and found it to be beautifully written, I do think the plot was a bit dull at times even for a “low-key style.”

    Great review.

  15. [...] For excellent plot summaries and analysis, please hop over to Kevin From Canada and The Asylum. I will not rehash the [...]

  16. [...] and Summer, by William Trevor, “an elegant [...]

  17. @Number 71 said,

    [...] since John Self read and rated William Trevor’s Love and Summer last year, I’ve been wanting to get around to reading [...]

  18. Imad said,

    I like William Trevor and delight in reading his short stories. But I do have to agree that “Love and Summer”, which I am reading right now, is laboured and far from being good literature. I am forcing myself to read on (as I do with any book which I start) but it is not getting any better!

  19. nancy said,

    Did you actually read the book? Orpen Wren is a weak link? Please try harder next time.

    • John Self said,

      Hi Nancy, thanks for your comment. Yes, I did read the book. What did I miss about Orpen Wren’s significance?

  20. Kathleen Silver said,

    Orpen Wren reminds me of the fool in King Lear: seeimingly addled and crazed, but the only person speaking the truth. This character was a stroke of genius in the novel.

  21. Ann Morgan said,

    I’m leading this next week for a group which includes some James Patterson – type readers. Does anyone have any suggestions for bringing them into the discussion? I’m already hearing the “no-plot” comments. (By the way, Kathleen, your comment on Orpen Wren was exactly right.)

  22. irina said,

    I am about to commit blasphemy. Skillful, meticulous detailing of the lives of scenes in the lives of ordinary people is what Trevor does best, but it doesn’t add up to great writing. When I finished the novel, I realized that the story it most reminded me of was that incredibly popular piece of trash “The Bridges of Madison County.” Country wife, sophisticated man; brief love affair; broken heart (or possibly even hearts); ends for noble reasons. These characters, created so beautifully, deserved something better than this lame, “sad is beautiful” story. When I had finished it, I asked myself if Joyce would have written this story, or if Chekhov would have, or if Alice Munro would have—they are some of my most admired writers. The answer in every case was not a chance. Bleak as many of their stories are, they aim for something higher.

    • jay said,

      i think this review by Irina is right on. i picked up this book recalling it was on this blog and could not wait to turn the last page. it was not only dull, i found it in places to be poorly written as well, colloquialism slipping into a lazy lack of clarity.

      all in all, this seemed like a shot story that go out of hand and, in doing so, followed the wrong characters. the ones to whom Trevor devotes less time are more interesting (although it’s quite possible he may have found a way to make them dull had he paid them more attention).

      can’t say anything but that this was a stinker.

  23. Jessica said,

    I am totally with you, Irina. It reminded me of Bridges of Madison County also. I found the book very irritating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,564 other followers

%d bloggers like this: