Love and Summer, by William Trevor

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Ellie is a foundling, raised by the nuns at Cloonhill, placed with the widowed farmer Dillahan as a servant (“there’s not many as lucky”) and later promoted as his wife — the only difference in that new state being that she now shares a bed.

Florian Kilderry is another orphan, albeit a recent one. His watercolor-painting parents have recently died and he has inherited a rambling and declining 18 room house and a lot of debts. He is a decent enough fellow, still trying to find himself, somehwat aimless with no real trade or ambition.

Miss Connulty (she has a first name but even her twin brother hasn’t used it for decades) is the daughter of the recently deceased matron of the town of Rathmoye. The family controls much of the town commerce (pub, coal yard and B and B) and she has just moved into the large bedroom, taking with her the family jewels and her own tortured memories.

Orpen Wren used to be a servant of the St Johns of Lisquin, a family long departed from Rathmoye with their own scandals responsible. But Wren continues to live in that past, jealously guarding the family papers as he awaits the return of a St John of the current generation and, in the meantime, wandering the town in his own version of a realitiy set some decades past.

Does this seem to shape up like William Trevor country? While I haven’t read a lot of his work, it did seem like familiar territory to me only a few pages in — a cast of characters who are for the most part likable, yet every one of them harbors powerful influences from a past that, as the book unfolds, will move more and more into the present and become ever more threatening.

Florian shows up at Mrs. Connulty’s funeral with his camera (photography is the latest career option for him). He is actually in search of the remnants of the town cinema (where Mr. Connulty perished in a fire) but does stop to take some pictures of the funeral, much to the dismay of Miss Connulty. He asks Ellie for directions.

And they fall in love.

If you want straightforward, logical plot, William Trevor is not your author. If you are willing to grant him a fair bit of licence, you get ample rewards. He specializes in burrowing to depths of detail that, in the final analysis, do support the uncertainty of his plot developments:

Cycling out of town, Ellie wondered who the man who’d been taking photographs was. The way he’d asked about the old picture house you could tell he didn’t know Rathmoye at all, and she’d never seen him on the streets or in a shop. She wondered if he was connected with the Connultys, since it was the Connultys who owned the picture house and since it had been Mrs Connulty’s funeral. She’d never seen photographs taken at a funeral before, and supposed the Connultys could have employed him to do it. Or he was maybe off a newspaper, the Nenagh News or the Nationalist, because sometimes in a paper you’d see a picture of a funeral. If she’d gone back to the house afterwards she could have asked Miss Connulty, but the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.

Trevor’s characters lead small lives in a small town with small concerns, like meeting the artificial-insemination man. That does not mean that the tragedy that awaits them is anything but small.

Florian and Ellie continue to meet, seemingly without purpose, except to the spying eyes of Miss Connulty who projects her own unhappiness and history onto their relationship. It is entirely without basis; it turns out to be correct.

Ellie’s husband, the farmer Dillahan, carries his own remorse — he backed a loaded trailer into his wife and child, killing them both. Ever since, he has carried the feeling that the entire town is speculating on what his responsibility for the accident (drunkenness? desire?) was. The characters of Love and Summer don’t repress history, they attribute meaning to it and let it influence their present.

And while Orpen’s memories may come from a confused, semi-demented past they do have their own version of sense — and his determination to recount them provides a key leverage point in Trevor’s plot.

This novel (and previous Trevor works that I have read) does have its inconsistencies — such as the rapidity with which Ellie and Florian fall in love. Also, while Florian lives within easy cycling distance of Rathmoye it appears he has never been there before the book opens, neither do any of the residents know him. Farmer Dillahan, who has a car, has never been to Florian’s village either. None of this is believable in a conventional sense; I’d like to think that Trevor is using these illogical inconsistencies not sloppily but deliberately, to remind readers that some characters consciously choose to lead constrained lives. The author makes them pay a price for that.

It took me two readings to appreciate what Trevor accomplishes with this novel. The world that he portrays is so tightly-constrained that the first time through “major” incidents pass unnoticed — there is not a lot of cause in this work, there is a lot of effect. I think his point is that the simple contains all the elements that will produce tragedy that the complex does and his world is that simple. It is an exceptionally well-done work that demands attention and “ear” from the reader like few others, but in the end rewards the perseverance. It is not the kind of novel that appeals to everyone’s taste; it certainly appealed to mine.

For anyone who is contemplating the Booker longlist, it is impossible not to make comparisons between this novel and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here). Both are set in small towns in Ireland that are experiencing change (Trevor doesn’t actually say Rathmoye is in Ireland but it seems a fair assumption). The central character in both — Trevor’s Ellie and Toibin’s Eilie — is a confused young woman, not quite up to dealing with everything that is around her. There are certainly differences; Toibin has more breadth (much of Brooklyn is set in the U.S.), Trevor has more depth. This novel is more finely written, but Toibin’s bigger canvas adds more layers of interest. I liked both and do appreciate the differences. If forced to make a choice (as the Booker jury at some time must), I would opt for the Toibin — but that is probably more a reflection of my living in North America rather than a conclusion about the quality of the book.

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17 Responses to “Love and Summer, by William Trevor”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Kevin. It was its similarity to Brooklyn that made me think you would (didn’t want to say that before, as that could spoil it for you).

    I think if I had to choose between Brooklyn and this one, I would go for this one. I liked how Dillahan’s misunderstanding of Orpen’s delusion influenced the fate of so many characters.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I don’t usually mind reading reviews or opinions before I read a book, so don’t feel you have to hold back, Colette. (Although having said that, please hold back on the Coetzee — it is a book that I don’t want to know any more about until I read it).

    Brooklyn is getting better with memory and I will need to reread it if it makes the shortlist — part of me does fear that I might have less regard for it after another read. Love and Summer on the other hand did get influenced by my reading it when I was taking a break from Wolf Hall (stay tuned on that one) — I had more appreciation for the precision of Trevor’s prose. I suspect that my preference between Toibin and Trevor might come down to my attitude that day. Your point about Dillahan is a very good one. In fact, a similar argument could be made for almost every character in this book, which is one of its major attractions.

  3. Kerry Says:

    I am waiting patiently for Brooklyn, while my wife finishes. You make me think I should have been searching out a copy of William Trevor’s Love and Summer, so I could make a comparison. Like everyone, I have a sufficient TBR pile, but I am thinking I made a mistake. I will probably read Toibin then Trevor, but I will read Trevor.

    Great review.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kerry. I would recommend leaving some space between the two (I did read them some months apart). The only reason for making a comparison is that both are on the longlist — each does stand on its own merits.

  5. john h Says:

    this sounds interesting. I’m sure I’ll pick it up if it comes to my local library. Although I must admit that I prefer Trevor’s short stories to his novels. With the exception of “Felicia’s Journey” that is. That one was very good. “Lucy Gault” I couldn’t get into at all.

    I’m also looking forward to the Toibin. His last couple of books have been good.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    In some ways, this novel is a collection of short stories, to be expected from an author who is mainly a short story writer. While Elllie and Florian are the central stories, each of the other characters brings their own story to the book. It did remind me at times of being an Irish version of Winesburg, Ohio done as a novel, although the individual stories do overlap more here.

  7. Andrea Says:

    Just a few quibbles with your review Kevin, Ellie falls in love with Florian, but he doesn’t fall in love with her (in fact he’s in love with Isabella by my reading). The small town / isolation issue – I wonder about. I’ve talked to quite a few expat residents of the Ireland (as opposed to Northern Ireland) and it does seem to have a strange facility for life to revolve around the local pub and church, and for nearby towns to be almost completely separate. (A peculiarity of many rural locales I think – the same thing happens in New Zealand). Also – Florian and the Rathmoye characters revolved in quite separate social spheres – Florian being originally from a higher social strata that would have kept him away from most in Rathmoye.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Andrea: I’d say your observations are more additional insight than they are quibbles. I do think Florian falls into a version of “love” with Ellie, but you are quite right — that version casts her as a stand-in for Isabella (and whatever the attraction was, it is she, not he, who scuttles the elopement). And your clarification the isolation issue is much appreciated because I suspect I am not the only one who doesn’t know about it. Whatever the explanation (and I quite like both your points on it), Trevor uses it very effectively to develop the conflict in the book.

  9. Andrea Says:

    Yes he does – reflecting on it further, there is the conflict between the wistful, useless qualities of Florian (who seems to me a bit of a dilettante) and the real and rather depressing situation Ellie is in. It is almost as if, by the end of the book, the old man’s confusion of Florian with the cad of St John’s of Lisquin is quite justified. Florian appears to be heading for the life of a writer – is Trevor commenting on the moral delinquency of writers do you think? Ha! similar theme to ‘Not Unkind and Not Untrue’.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I didn’t get any impression that Florian was heading for life as a writer — and hence also saw no commentary on the moral delinquency of writers.

  11. Andrea Says:

    Didn’t you think the notebook of his writing he found (which Isabella commented on the beauty of) – was a give away. He was unsuccessful at the forms of art which his parents excelled at, but Trevor definitely spoke of him going off to Scandinavia and writing – partly why he was reluctant to take Ellie with him. I handed the book on, or I could look up the page reference – it was near the end when he talked about his plans ‘after Ireland’. Maybe Trevor is a little too subtle at times.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now I see your point, Andrea. The notebooks sent me in a different direction (so maybe Trevor is a little too subtle, given our widely varied responses). He had written it some years ago and what I found significant (as did Isabella) was that he started lots of ideas but never developed them — another indication of his inability to set himself in any definite direction. I saw it as very similar to his finding the camera, wandering around taking pictures thinking he would be a photographer and then abandoning that too — the two initiatives seem very comparable. I think Trevor provides a lot more evidence that Florian will continue to wander aimlessly (the final short chapter certainly points in that direction) than that the next stage of his life will have any more concrete purpose than his last.

    I don’t know if you have read Summertime yet, but if you can hang on for a few days until my review goes up, I think it provides a better illustration of your point about the moral delinquency of writers. While it has a number of themes and streams, that is the one I intend to focus on. It is a bit of a stretch, but I could see comparing it with some of Not Untrue and Not Unkind — although the main result of that is to underline how truly wanting O’Loughlin’s novel is.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Ireland, the past, memories, orphans, nuns.

    Oh for an Irish book without these things.

    That aside, it does sound like it avoids Irish miserabilism, which is no bad thing. That I think is an overexplored genre. Still, I do wonder why Irish novels seem to so often to be set in villages, much of the population is urban after all. None of my Irish relatives (and I have a reasonable number) live anywhere anything like the places in most Irish novels.

    That aside, the subtlety seems almost a concern which is unusual, I note you had to read it twice Kevin, and even after that still prefer the Toibin (perhaps unsurprisingly, the man’s a terrific writer). That’s a slight concern to me, that level of investment and yet still trailing there. Trevor sounds a bit like a poet novelist, a fine ear for language, but perhaps not for consistency or plot (though he plainly has a plot, and to be honest I’m perfectly happy with plotless novels).

    Brooklyn tempts me, this not so much, an interesting review and a book I’ll keep an eye out for and mull over before taking a final decision on. Thanks as ever.

  14. Andrea Says:

    I see what you mean Kevin, Florian was a bit lightweight to be considered a writer – aIthough I saw the potential there, and thought that is where Trevor was heading. Writer or not, Florian did seem to me to be an irresponsible character – pursuing, in his own way, Ellie, without thought of the consequences.

    I am looking forward to reading Summertime – I was intending to reread this too, as – like you Max, I felt as if I was missing the point for most of it. It reminds me of an deep and esoteric movie which you spend three hours watching, and then wonder why (“The White Ribbon” comes to mind). On second thoughts perhaps I’ll invest my energy into reading ‘Lucy Gault’ – I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, and everyone seems to love that.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think part of my preference for Brooklyn is that I am inclined to the “bigger” story — if you get the chance, chase down Liam McIlvanney’s review of it in the London Review of Books from a few months ago. The review supplies a lot of useful contextual background which I didn’t have on my first read and I am much looking forward to a reread. As my exchange with Andrea illustrates, Trevor is so subtle that even a lot of apparently signficant details (e.g. the notebooks) are open to a variety of quite divergent interpretations. I haven’t read a lot of his work (and the unread includes Lucy Gault, Andrea) but I think I prefer his short stories, even though I did quite like this book.

  16. John Self Says:

    I’ve read Love and Summer now and liked it much more than I thought I would. I can only defer to Kevin and Andrea’s insights not all of which I picked up on. Max, it is to some extent a predictable book, both in subject matter, tone and themes, but I think if you buy into that (and it was only the quality of the writing that made me buy into it: I was initially expecting to be quite hostile), it’s a very satisfying read.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John Self: Like you, I am pretty lukewarm about Trevor — there is no doubt he is a fine writer, but I find his books (except perhaps for Felicia’s Journey) slip away pretty quickly once you put them down. This one has not, at least so far. It is a very “quiet” piece of writing, but does plant some seeds that keep coming back. It has motivated me to pull up some of his short stories again — I do think that is where Trevor is at his best.

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