Love and Summer by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick lately, starting with two of his early books, The Boarding-House and The Old Boys, and now his final novel, Love and Summer, first published in 2009. It’s interesting to see how Trevor’s style has evolved over the years, moving from those darkly comic early works to the delicately elegiac stories of his twilight years. What seems to unite much of this author’s fiction is a perceptive insight into human nature – the day-to-day dramas that shape our lives in the most poignant and wrenching of ways.

Love and Summer is a quiet, subtle novel set in the idyllic Irish countryside of the 1950s. The story focuses on Ellie, a shy young woman who is married to a kindly farmer, Dillahan, a decent man still haunted by the death of his first wife and child in an accident on the farm some years earlier. (Dillahan unjustly blames himself for a momentary loss of concentration that contributed to the tragedy – as such he now prefers to avoid interactions with the local community as much as possible for fear of speculation about his part in the incident.)  Ellie had initially been sent to the farm to keep house for Dillahan following the death of his wife and mother, but then the pair agreed to marry a few years later, formalising a relationship built on mutual respect and understanding as opposed to any sense of passion or love.

As the novel opens, Ellie is seen talking to a stranger in the nearby town of Rathmoye, a dark-haired young man called Florian Kilderry. Florian has come to the town to take pictures of the burnt-out cinema, photography being something of a hobby he is trying to cultivate. However, on his arrival in Rathmoye, Florian is distracted by a funeral that is taking place, that of old Mrs Connulty, a fierce tyrant who previously made her unmarried daughter’s life a misery with her unremitting bitterness and disdain.

While Florian is a stranger to the town, his home is only seven miles away, a crumbling old house by the name of Shelhanagh. Now that both his parents – once talented artists – have passed away, Florian can no longer afford to keep the house going in the face of mounting debts, so he plans to sell up and leave Ireland for good, taking his chance on a new life in Scandinavia.

Ellie lives a quiet life on Dillahan’s farm, tending to the chickens and delivering their eggs to various customers in the town. For Ellie, meeting Florian brings about something of an awakening, giving rise to emotions she has never previously experienced.

She wondered if she would be the same herself; if she was no longer – and would not be again – the person she was when she had gone to Mrs Connulty’s funeral and for all the time before that. When he had asked whose funeral it was it had been the beginning but she hadn’t known. When Miss Connulty had drawn her attention to him in the Square she had realized. When he’d smiled in the Cash and Carry she’d known it too. She had been different already when she stood with him in the sunshine, when he offered her the cigarette and she shook her head. Anyone could have seen them and she hadn’t cared. (p. 53)

Florian, for his part, is also attracted to Ellie, her innocence and simplicity sparking a sense of tenderness in his soul.

As the long, hot summer unfolds, the attraction between Ellie and Florian deepens. At first, Ellie tries to change her routine to avoid bumping into Florian in the town, but the need to go about her business means that encounters are virtually inevitable.

Unbeknownst to the couple, Miss Connulty (old Mrs Connulty’s spinster daughter) has been watching their encounters in Rathmoye. Miss Connulty is the town busybody, intent on poking her nose into other people’s business, much to the dismay of her bachelor brother, Joseph Paul. Now installed as head of the town’s boarding house following the death of her mother, Miss Connulty watches Florian and Ellie from her window, determined to protect Ellie from being swayed by the stranger’s presence in the town. As the story unfolds, we learn more of Miss Connulty’s backstory, a past that goes some way towards explaining her resentment towards Florian.

All too soon Florian and Ellie are meeting regularly in secret on the outskirts of Rathmoye, spending time in places that are not frequented by the locals. What starts as a summer dalliance for Florian represents something more profound for Ellie, opening up a world of possibilities beyond the narrowness of her life on the farm. As the summer draws to a close, Florian realises how far things have progressed for Ellie and how crushed she will be when he is gone.

Riding on to Shelhanagh afterwards, he realized that his nostalgic reflections in the roadside bar had been an effort to brush away an uneasy day. It was no more than the truth that he had sought to prolong a friendship which summer had almost made an idyll of. But what he had failed to anticipate was the depth of disappointment its inevitable end would bring. He had allowed the simple to be complicated. He had loved being loved, and knew too late that tenderness in return was not enough. (p. 139)

Lover and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings.

Trevor’s prose is quietly beautiful – simple and unadorned, yet subtle enough to convey the depth of feeling at play. The characters too are very nicely judged – not only the main players but the minor characters also – most notably, the spiteful Miss Connulty and her placid, buttoned-up brother, Joseph Paul. There is also the latter’s assistant, Bernadette, a woman who silently worships her employer, making do with the comfort of their daily meetings in place of anything more fulfilling.

Bernadette spread out the papers she had brought, the cheques to be signed kept to one side. For a long time this had been a morning routine, the 7-Up, and watching while the top of her employer’s ballpoint was removed, his signature inscribed. This declaration of his identity was as meticulous and tidy as he was himself, a man who respected restraint, who never raised his voice or displayed anger, who lost nothing because he would not let himself lose things. Bernadette loved him. (p. 69)

The deluded Orpen Wren – a somewhat tragic man who lives in the past but sees everything in the present – is another significant presence in the novel, his rambling revelations causing something of crunch point in the rhythm of Ellie and Dillahan’s relationship.

This is a beautiful, poignant novel for fans of character-driven fiction, very highly recommended indeed.

Love and Summer is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

50 thoughts on “Love and Summer by William Trevor

  1. inthemistandrain

    I’ve just read The Children of Dynmouth, I enjoyed it enormously and was wondering what of his to read next. I’ve read a few and I’m sure I wouldn’t be disappointed in whatever I go for but think it’ll be The Boarding House. He is a writer who seems to be only known and appreciated by people who read if you know what I mean.
    Thanks for your reviews, I enjoy them, you almost make me feel brave enough to tackle the Powell sequence……..

    Reply
    1. fswolfe

      Are you referring to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time books? No need for courage; they are easy to read, very entertaining, with unforgettable characters. Among my favorites.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I do know what you mean. He’s the kind of writer who ought to have received a little more recognition during his lifetime, especially given the quality of his books. From what I know of The Children of Dynmouth, it’s probably closer to his early novels than this one. The Boarding-House is excellent. Rather mischievous in certain respects, and yet there are moments of real poignancy too. It’s the combination of different tones that makes it such an interesting book!

      PS I’m glad you’re enjoying my reviews, that’s really lovely to hear. Thank you!

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    Trevor’s work epitomises for me that lovely style Irish writers do so well. You’ve nailed it with ‘quietly beautiful – simple and unadorned, yet subtle enough to convey the depth of feeling at play.’ Great review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks, Susan. That’s high praise coming from someone like you, especially given your fondness for the style of writer. It’s not a million miles away from something like Mary Costello’s Academy Street, don’t you think? Quiet, beautifully-judged writing with a real sense of depth.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He certainly does. I love the way he writes about ordinary/everyday people and the pivotal moments in their lives. You really get a sense of that with Ellie as her life will be shaped by this summer with Florian,

      Reply
  3. fswolfe

    I just read this book recently–I’m a longtime Trevor admirer–and thought it was wonderful. It’s even a sort of page-turner; I was driven to find out what Ellie would do. Your summation of Love and Summer is excellent, but I felt a tad more sympathetic toward Miss Connulty than perhaps you did.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s very interesting! Maybe I’ve been a little harsh on Miss Connulty, especially given her history with outsiders. It’s a pivotal factor in her reaction to Florian’s presence in the town, stirring up all those terrible memories from the past. I guess I felt somewhat more sympathetic towards her brother, Joseph, such a placid, restrained character. What tension there must have been in that house between the two of them – it comes through so strongly on the page.

      Reply
  4. realthog

    The only novel of Trevor’s that I’ve read is Felicia’s Journey; I did so after much enjoying the movie based on it, but found myself a bit ho-hum about the book. Your review of this one is tempting me to give him another try, though. What a dangerous person you are, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha…temptation, temptation! Seriously though, I do think Trevor is an excellent writer…but for you I would suggest The Boarding-House ahead of this one. It has that devilish sense of humour you would likely enjoy.

      Reply
  5. Julé

    Thank you for this lovely reminder of how wonderful William Trevor is; one of my most memorable early reading experiences was a big collection of his short stories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, you’re very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to comment; I really do appreciated it. I’m hoping to read some of Trevor’s short stories in the future, maybe next year depending on how the rest of my reading goes. They do sound very special indeed…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s interesting. Trevor’s later work definitely feels more melancholy than his earlier stuff, perhaps not surprisingly given his stage of life at the time. There’s something very poignant about this novel, a sense of what-might-have been if only our circumstances were different.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a bit of a heart-breaker, I’m afraid, but beautifully judged nonetheless. I suspect Trevor has the potential to become one of my all-time favourite writers – he really is that good!

      Reply
  6. Jane

    Sounds excellent, thank you for a great review. I haven’t come across this author but the Irish countryside in the 1950’s sounds a good place to begin!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it would make a great introduction to Trevor later work, especially if you like the sounds of the setting. You really get a sense that he knows this kind of rural community so well, their hopes and dreams, their challenges and frustrations. He captures the rhythm of their lives so brilliantly.

      Reply
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  8. heavenali

    Fabulous review, I love those quotes. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. William Trevor portrays the small community and the relationships between people beautifully. He’s such a subtle writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! I was just saying the very same thing to Jane in my reply to her comment. My mother grew up in Ireland, and while her family were closer to a big city than Ellie’s, she didn’t have to travel far to find this kind of community. It all feels so authentic, doesn’t it?

      Reply
  9. Jonathan

    Like you I’ve read mostly his earlier works so far. I did read his Last Stories though and I agree that his later style seemed to have evolved quite a bit from his earlier style. I like the sound of this one. It appears to share common themes with those I’ve read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a copy of Last Stories on the shelf and am looking forward to it immensely. It sounds as if you liked it quite a bit, which is great to hear – a fitting end to his writing career, I suspect.

      Reply
  10. Brian Joseph

    This sounds so good. It is sometimes very enlightening to read through an author’s books chronology. Like many other things, some authors evolve over time in satisfying and effective ways.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. With Trevor, I’ve read a few of his early novels as well as this final one, and it’s definitely possible to see a shift in tone between the two. I’m looking forward to filling in a few of the gaps by reading some mid-period Trevor, just to see how they compare.

      Reply
  11. Tredynas Days

    Just back from a holiday in Norway, hence the lack of engagement with posts. But I read and enjoyed this one. WT is one of my favourite authors, and you’ve identified many of his qualities here and in the comments. I’d certainly recommend the short stories; it’s a while since I read them, but I have the massive Collected Stories waiting for me to return to him. Along with this one, which I hadn’t read, and certainly will.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I hope you had a lovely holiday in Norway – sounds very relaxing. (I’ve only ever been there on a business trip which left very little time to explore!)

      As for Trevor, he’s a wonderful writer – even better than Com Toibin, I think, although there are similarities between the two of them for sure. I’m glad to hear you’re a fan of Trevor’s short stories. Plenty for me to look forward to there in the future.

      Reply
  12. Caroline

    It’s been a while since I’ve last read him. I think I like his later work even better. This sounds so beautiful. You conveyed the quiet subtlety very well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s a delicacy and subtlety to his later work that sets it apart from those early novels. There’s something else too – a sense of melancholy or poignancy to Ellie’s situation. I think you would love this one, Caroline. The combination of tone and style feels right up your street.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          He’s very highly regarded, certainly by other writers and reviewers. As for his profile with the general reading public over here, I’m not sure. He’s probably not as well known as someone like Colm Toibin, for example, even though he’s been around for longer. I think you’d appreciate his writing – it’s perceptive, subtle and beautifully observed. Definitely worth considering as a possible book club choice.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve read a couple of others by Baldwin: Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk, both excellent. Glad to hear you liked Giovanni’s Room so much; it definitely sounds like my kind of book.

      Reply
  13. Radz Pandit

    This sounds wonderful Jacqui! I have only read one Trevor – Felicia’s Journey – many years ago and i remember it was a poignant and heartbreaking read. Trevor is such a sensitive writer.

    I have Love and Summer tucked away somewhere behind on the bookshelves, so I hope to dig it out as soon as possible!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there’s a very good chance that you’ll love this, Radhika. The sensitivity and humanity you describe in Trevor’s writing is very much in evidence here – it’s beautifully judged. Felicia’s Journey sounds excellent. I recall seeing the film adaptation (with Bob Hoskins) when it came out in the late ’90s, but I’ve never actually read the original novel. Something to remedy in the future…

      Reply
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  15. Anne Hercock

    Thanks for recommending this. I loved it and it was a hardship to put it down to do other things. I’ve read quite a lot of Trevor and always enjoy his sensitive characterisation and gentle moods. This was heart breaking at times and the final image of the green hold all, colour of life, hope and new growth has stayed with me. I don’t want to create a spoiler so I won’t say anymore about that! There were twists and developments in the plot but not ones I expected though I knew enough about Trevor not to expect a happy ending!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The image of that green holdall is utterly heartbreaking, isn’t it? As you say, it’s difficult to say any more without revealing spoilers. Trevor is so good on these aspects of life, the poignant little details that communicate so much about a character’s situation or feelings – often significantly more than words alone could express. Thanks so much for taking the time to drop back and comment – it’s responses like this that make it all feel worthwhile.

      Reply

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