Often baggage from the past and the manipulations of others define lives. It is these entwined notions that Anglo-Irish writer William Trevor explores in his latest novel, Love and Summer. A master of his craft, Trevor has been writing fiction since 1964, and like his previous works this offering is a spare and nuanced portrayal of fragile humans dwarfed by life’s circumstances. Critics acclaim him as another Chekhov, not only because he writes short stories, but more significantly because his unsettling fiction captures the sorrows beneath ostensibly comfortable lives.
Set in the mid 1950s in an Irish country town he calls Rathmoye, the novel features the stoical Dillahan, a capable and conscientious farmer but a man not suited to interpersonal relationships; Ellie, his second and much younger wife, described by Trevor as an “artless country girl;” and Florian Kilderry, an amateur photographer in his early twenties who is preparing to emigrate to Scandinavia.
The novel opens with a funeral. The deceased is Mrs. Eileen Connulty, a wealthy widow who owned most of Rathmoye, including the pub and hotel. Trevor notes that as she lived out her final days, she “feared she would now be obliged to join her husband and prayed she would not have to.” Mrs. Connulty leaves behind two middle-aged children. Her restless daughter, though she “retained in her features the shadow of a prettiness that enlivened her as a girl,” spends her days peeping through the blinds of the hotel, missing nothing that transpires in the town square. Because her life has been indelibly marked by the abortion she underwent long ago following an affair with a married man, she is on the lookout for possible marital or sexual transgressions.
Her brother, the teetotaler Joseph Paul Connulty, had once hoped to become a priest but as Trevor puts it, “the vocation had 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.”
Despite this cleverly rendered backstory, the Connulty funeral is significant because it is there that Ellie Dillahan and Florian Kilderry meet for the first time. Florian has bicycled into town from his deceased parents’ decaying country house, Shelhangh. Florian’s father was Anglo/Irish, and his mother was Italian. Blocked by the funeral procession, he asks directions of Ellie who has ventured into town from the outlying Dillahan farm. With his characteristic sharp focus that misses nothing, Trevor describes Florian, “A suggestion of stylishness – in his general demeanor, in his jaunty green-and-blue-striped tie – was repudiated by the comfortable bagginess of his suit.”
A minor but key character is the deranged Orpen Wren, an elderly man who lives in both the present and the past, unable to tell the difference. “Orpen Wren waited at Rathmoye’s railway station as every morning he did, and again every evening…But no train came, and had not since the station’s closure, and would not ever again.” Decades ago he had been employed by the St. John Library, a renowned institution that attracted scholars from throughout Ireland. In his fog of madness, Orpen believes Florian to be a member of the aristocratic St. John family, patrons of the now defunct Library. He thinks Florian is George Anthony St. John, a man who died years ago. Encountering Florian in the Rathmoye Square, Orpen tells him, “It’s the best thing ever happened in Ireland, sir, yourself coming back.”
Though barely out of her teens, Ellie has been a resident of the Dillahan farm for several years. A foundling in the true sense of having been “found” as an infant, Ellie grew up with the nuns at Cloonhill, an orphanage for girls. She was placed with Dillahan, a widower, as a housekeeper. After a few years Dillahan and Ellie married, and settled into an agreeable, but dull, routine. The creation of Ellie, truly one of life’s victims, is one of the many highlights of this compassionate work. “Child of an institution, child of need and humility, born into nothing, expecting nothing…” writes Trevor. Until she meets Florian, Ellie had not been aware that she didn’t love her husband. “Love hadn’t come into it,” she muses. “It was a kindness…when she had been offered marriage; it would have been unkind on her part if she’d said no.”
The character of Dillahan, too, is solidly three-dimensional. Dillahan is haunted by a tragedy that occurred seven years prior to the novel’s opening. A farm accident, for which he blames himself, took the lives of his first wife and their baby. As he meticulously maintains his small acreage, he cannot rid himself of the memory of the incident. “Again the accident was there, suddenly, the way it always came. The thump there had been, the moment of bewilderment, the sun in the yard…the moment of realizing.”
Despite pangs of conscience on both their parts, Ellie and Florian bicycle the country lanes, contriving to be together. As the time for Florian’s departure nears, they see each other more than once a day. It is not, however, in Dillahan’s nature to suspect Ellie of infidelity, and he remains uninformed. Yet he is sensitive to her well-being, worrying about the melancholy atmosphere at the remote farm. Trevor points out that it crosses Dillahan’s mind “that Ellie was bored, that there was a loneliness about her days at the farmhouse, that housekeeping and eggs, and keeping the diary spic and span, and whitewashing the turf sheds were not enough.”
By the time Ellie is hopelessly besotted by Florian and dreading his impending departure, Orpen Wren laboriously makes his way on foot out to the Dillahan farm to reveal something to Dillahan. It is pivotal to the plot’s resolution that Dillahan misapprehends Orpen’s muddled allegation.
Midway in Love and Summer , it becomes apparent that Florian, though he is attracted to her and feels a tenderness toward her, is not in love with Ellie. He has been in love with his Italian cousin, Isabella, since the summer visits she made to Ireland when they were both adolescents. Florian, says Trevor, has “a fondness for concealment.” He is also prone to inaction. He does fault himself for poor judgment in permitting Ellie to fall in love with him. With insight he reflects that on his part, his relationship with her was “a passing summer friendship, even though love came into it, too.” He had, indeed, “carelessly allowed a treacherous love to flourish.”
Though Florian appraises their relationship correctly, Ellie persuades him to take her with him to Scandinavia. The two plan to meet late on a summer evening to bicycle to Dublin and from there to travel by boat to Sweden.
In a plot turn characteristic of Trevor’s writing, on the night of the planned departure Ellie’s basic goodness prevails. Her change of heart is not only plausible – it is inevitable. “In the silent kitchen,” writes Trevor, “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…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.”