- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

By William Trevor
Viking, $25.95, 224 pages

A summer love affair, a rural Irish town, a collection of characters scarred by traumatic pasts — how easily could a novel with these elements descend into sentimentality or melodrama. Yet here is the venerable William Trevor taking this familiar material and transforming it into a work of such depth and elegance, that we feel his story has never been told before. Gorgeous prose, of course, can turn any story luminous. And Mr. Trevor’s makes all the difference, ranging as it does from the deceptively simple sentence to passages filled with meter, music and cadence, rising to the loftiest heights.

Mr. Trevor has enjoyed a long, storied, and prolific career, beginning with his darkly comic novels and masterful short stories of the 1960s and ‘70s, but in “Love and Summer,” his style has been distilled into a spare lyricism rich in nuance and in feeling. His setting is the fictional town of Rathmoye in the 1950s, which lies steeped in a postwar languor. Seemingly nothing happens in this place, and the mood from the onset is one of stasis and decay: The cinema stands burnt-out, the railway station has closed, weeds choke a few derelict houses.

Into this world comes Florian Kilderry, a young man who lives nearby, in a decaying estate that he has inherited from his recently deceased parents. Preparing to leave Ireland behind and wander abroad in Scandinavia, he is in the process of selling the large house, ridding it of years of accumulated materials. His desire to abandon his life has much to do with his alienation from the world he has always known: born into a family of great watercolor painters, he was always expected to follow in this tradition, and yet he inherited none of his parents’ artistic skill. And though he has spent his young life trying to paint, write and take photographs, he continually fails at each endeavor, leading to the frustrating understanding that what talent he has must surely lie outside the realm of art.

This epiphany will come later. As the novel opens, he intends merely to pass a summer idly, intent on photographing the ruins of Rathmoye’s cinema. While in town, he meets Ellie Dillahan, a young woman married to an older farmer, a woman childlike in character, innocent, endowed with “a modest beauty.” The two begin an affair, and yet, they seem an unlikely match. When we first meet Florian, he is cycling toward Rathmoye; when first we see Ellie, she is cycling away from it. And thus a tension is established between them from the start, though it is only felt, of course, by the reader.

The trouble is, the love affair is decidedly one-sided. Ellie’s participation in it transforms her. Stuck in a marriage of duty and obligation, she experiences for the first time in her life a flowering of romantic love (the sexual aspects are muted, understated). Florian, however, knowing that his time in his native Ireland is nearly up, treats Ellie like little more than a summer’s pastime.

“[Florian] had a way of holding a cigarette,” Mr. Trevor writes. “When he’d offered her one he’d tapped one out of the packet for himself and hadn’t lit it. The rest of the time he was with her he’d held it, unlit, between his fingers.” This is an important (and wonderful) image, for although Florian continually invades Ellie’s thoughts, making her restive as she dreams of escaping the confines of farm life, his own feelings for her never ignite. The image of the unlit cigarette suggests a phallus, but one without any heart behind it.

Florian’s problem is that he cannot get over his childhood love for an Italian cousin, Isabella. She remains poised in his mind like the ideal embodiment of beauty and femininity, and to her does he compare all the other women he meets in his life. Isabella inhabits his interior world like a living, breathing presence, so vividly, that he cannot truly love anyone else.

To be sure, Ellie does arouse some feeling in Florian: “[T]his morning an artless country girl had stirred a tenderness in him and already his cousin’s voice echoed less confidently, her smile was perhaps a little blurred, her touch less than yesterday’s memory of it.” But tenderness, alas, is not the same thing as love, and in the end, continuing the affair with Ellie is an act of supreme selfishness. That the relationship is so one-sided makes its denouement all the more heartbreaking.

One always has the sense that Florian and Ellie’s affair isn’t merely the private encounter between two young people, isolated in one moment of time, but rather the current expression of a leitmotif that has recurred throughout Rathmoye’s history. Mr. Trevor imbues not only his two young lovers but the characters around them, too, with tragic histories (Ellie’s husband is chief among them, as is Miss Connulty, who runs a lodging house in town). These are people who live with painful residues of the past, and personal dramas consequently simmer in the town’s collective unconscious.

Only when Florian comes to understand this can he begin to realize how deep is Ellie’s passion for him, how he has “asked too much of friendship, and carelessly allowed a treacherous love to flourish.” Sitting together during a quiet melancholy moment, their silence is fraught with layers of emotion: “She had come to him, and pity now was nourished by his greater guilt, and guilt was lent some part of pity’s dignity. A wild delusion seemed … to be less wild, a hopeless yearning less intolerant of reason. They sat not speaking, and time seemed not to pass.”

Here it is again — the sense of time arrested. And Mr. Trevor’s novel is filled with characters who cannot quite get things going again; they remain paralyzed by the past. Florian thinks he can make a clean break by leaving behind the only home he has ever known. “But you didn’t lose touch with a place when it wasn’t there any more,” Mr. Trevor writes. Surely the same is true for people. And in that truth lies the deepest wisdom in this wise and moving novel.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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