- Love and Summer: A Novel
- Viking Adult, 224 pp.
What Fragile Memory Holds
Why is it that summer can never last forever, especially when we want it to? The once long and amorous days wane too soon in circumscription. A small chill creeps down from the hills. Something is about to end. Then someone leaves town. Someone always leaves town.
In William Trevor’s fourteenth novel, Love and Summer, that someone is a young man named Florian Kilderry: “He would ride through the night to Dublin . . . that was how he’d always wanted to go.”
Set in rural Ireland in the mid-1950s, the novel is more about the forces of the past than something pushed to the verge that never happens. “Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there.”
This is ideal landscape for Trevor because he makes the ordinary come alive through rich details accompanying everyday habits. We see through the chores and activities of the characters—maintaining a farm or lodging house, or running an errand in town—an acceptance or refusal of the past as the summer progresses without calamity.
Rathmoye is where the story begins and much of the action gravitates towards this small town. Trevor opens with the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, a widow who owned several properties including the lodging house, Number 4 The Square. Her son, Joseph Paul, and her daughter, Miss. Connulty, whose disturbing past is revealed amid the routine tasks of the day, survive her.
At the funeral, Ellie Dillahan, a shy orphan girl who married a divorced farmer out of necessity, bumps into Florian Kilderry who is taking pictures of the scene. He wants to know where the old picture house is and Ellie directs him there.
That he takes pictures of people mourning and visits the burnt down cinema (we learn later that this is where Mrs. Connulty’s husband died), bothers Miss. Connulty who assumes the worst about Florian’s intentions. “There’s nobody knows who he is,” she says curtly to her brother.
In Rathmoye, of course, this is unusual because most people know each other, or something about each other’s past. Florian, an only child, inherited his parent’s house (christened Shelhanagh) just outside the town of Castledrummond. His parent’s were painters and when they died he also inherited their debt.
Had the circumstances been less difficult, Florian would have remained forever at Shelhanagh, but since there was no indication that anything would change and since he knew he did not possess the courage to suffer the indignities of poverty on his own, he had decided to take the advice he was offered, to sell the house and—child of exiles as he was—to become an exile himself.
Not knowing who he is, where he’s going and what he wants drives the narrative and a sense of possibility that seems foreign to Rathmoye. A good deal of the novel is about Florian’s plans to leave and, as he moves through the process of emptying the house, you get the feeling that he is also erasing an expectation that he never entirely bought into. Even his dog, Jesse, dies. After he buries him, it is the future, not the past, that he pedals towards through night.
Will Ellie Dillahan come with him? She was raised by nuns and runs errands in Rathmoye several times a week. After she sees Florian again in town, feelings develop and they begin to meet secretly outside of Rathmoye.
He held the strands apart while she scrambled through barbed wire, and helped her again where a tree had fallen across the avenue. When he gave her his hand to take it was the first time they had touched, and still there was a calm there . . . . The Lisquin gate-lodge became their place.
Trevor keeps us suspended until the end and shows why he is arguably the most skillful storyteller still writing. His decision not to make Ellie into a tragic character—à la Joyce’s Eveline clutching the iron like a sacrificial victim—is a wise one.
It is not Ellie’s husband or Miss. Connultly who sets in motion the turning point, but Opren Wren—a deranged wanderer who “had long ago been employed to catalogue the library of the St. Johns of Lisquin.” Nothing about the trajectory of the characters and plot seems disingenuous. And nothing is predictable. What we thought might happen, does not.
This is not the only reason this is a great novel. Trevor does everything right, eliminating the extraneous and playing out all the cards. A young woman who never had a chance falls in love with a young man who has lost everything and doesn’t know who he is. Yet he is about to leave Ireland forever and never come back. Consider how skillful Trevor is in rendering the effect of this news on Ellie:
He would be gone, as the dead are gone, and that would be there all day, in the kitchen and in the yard, when she brought in the anthracite for the Rayburn, when she scalded the churns, while she fed the hens and stacked the turf. It would be there in the fields….It would be there while she lay down beside the husband she had married, and while she made his food and cut his bread, and while the old-time music played.
Trevor, in so much of his work, displays a fascination with endings. Often the reality of the protagonist’s situation is suspended in a hope that better days will come along. Inevitably, it’s not the situation, but the character that changes and ultimately accepts or refuses his or her lot.
Did Trevor see the light on Florian’s bicycle moving towards Dublin and beyond long before he knew the cold clarity of Ellie’s decision? Now into his eighties, he has again proven that he is a master of showing us how the reality of our condition is often at odds with what aches most in our hearts. This understanding will not calm what endures of love’s denial or a dream that never came to be, but it helps us see the impact of our choices more clearly, and there is tenderness in recalling what was lost that grows deeper through the years and becomes a part of who we are.