Book name: Summer
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Format: ebook, print
Publication Date: 1917
Star Rating: 5/5
I don't normally dive into trigger warnings right out, partly because I'm usually very careful about the kind of books I review, but I am going to do so here because Summer contains hints of incest.
I love Edith Wharton's New York society novels, and these are really the stories she is most famous for. Summer and its close kin Ethan Frome are an entirely different matter.
I'm not sure, if forced to choose, I wouldn't rate Summer and Ethan Frome more highly than the society novels, on the grounds of their tense narratives and sincerity of emotion.
Written in 1916, when Wharton took a rare break from helping war refugees in France, Summer is the story of a young woman, Charity Royall, who was adopted by Lawyer Royall and his wife. She has spent her life in the village of North Dormer in Massachusetts.
However, Charity's dull life is turned upside down by the arrival of a sophisticated young man, Lucius Harney, staying in the village with his aunt. He's in the area to sketch forgotten examples of beautiful architecture before they fall into total disrepair.
Charity, who meets him at the library where she works two afternoons a week, hopes to escape from her humdrum existence through her friendship with him.
Disturbingly, Charity's adopted father, now a widower, has previously proposed to her and been firmly declined. When he attempted to sneak into her room, he was even more brutally and deservedly rebuffed.
While Royall lingers in the background, her feelings for Lucius spiral out of control, yet the hope of a new life away from the boredom of North Dormer remains as elusive as ever.
Summer is always an uncomfortable read. A young woman is dependent upon the adopted father who took her away from her natural environment where she was being neglected and offered her a better life.
Years later, having stood in the role of a father to her, he presents himself as a possible husband. Not even the scoundrel behaviour of a man like Lucius Harney, who takes his pleasure and then slips away before he can be forced to rescue Charity's reputation, can make Royall a palatable figure.
Few Edith Wharton novels feature, or even end with, a satisfactory marriage. The happy conclusion of many novels of her time did involve love and marriage, but her bad experience in marriage meant that in her fiction this outcome was seldom the climax of her story. She was determined in her writing not to succumb to the powerful expectations of the time.
However, her painfully disappointing affair also taught her that falling shatteringly in love with a bad boy wouldn't bring fulfilment either. Like many of Edith Wharton's heroes and heroines, Charity has to reach a compromise with herself and she is strong enough to do it, avoiding the worst fates of, say, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.
On a more positive side, the plot of Summer was tense and vivid. I rooted for Charity right up to the end. The locations of the Mountain (where Charity's birth family live in squalor), North Dormer (dull and lifeless) and the greater sophistication of larger towns nearby felt very real and well observed. Wharton's treatment of small-town, rural America was honest but nonjudgmental.
Charity was an entirely sympathetic character. She works, dreams of a better life away from North Dormer and unfailingly remains free of bitterness towards Harney despite his terrible behaviour.
Despite the compromises that her situation forces upon her at the end of the novel, I remained hopeful for Charity that the future would improve and that she might one day be more of a mistress of her own fortune.
Like all of Edith Wharton's novels, Summer was impeccably written, full of excellent characterisation and provided a well-crafted portrait of the moment. I love this novel for all of those, but the subject matter still shocks me every time I read it.
Thank you for reading my review of Summer by Edith Wharton.
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