Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is a something of classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel set over three consecutive summer seasons – recently reissued by NYRB Classics in a beautiful new edition. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The story focuses on three sisters – Maria (aged 20), Infanta (aged 18), and Katerina (aged 16) – who live with their mother, their unmarried Aunt Theresa, and their grandfather in the Greek countryside just north of Athens. The girls’ mother, Anna, is separated from her husband, Miltos, following the latter’s open affairs. A Polish grandmother, whom we never actually meet in person, is another important character in the novel. There is a whiff of scandal and romanticism around this woman, mainly because she left her husband for a travelling musician several years earlier, abandoning Anna and Theresa in their childhood.   

In an evocative opening chapter, we see how the three sisters differ from one another in terms of character, their particular patches of garden reflecting something of the nature of their personalities. While Maria’s tiny vegetable garden is ordered and divided into discrete squares, Infanta’s is wild, containing almond trees that can survive without frequent watering or special care. Katerina’s, by contrast, is more spontaneous still, bursting with flowers grown from randomly-scattered seeds – a riot of contrasting colours all packed together. As Katerina is the novel’s narrator, it is predominantly through her eyes that we see the rest of the family.

At first sight, it might appear as though the novel is presenting a simple story, one of three sisters growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world.

The houses were closer together again here. About forty all in a clump, crowded together out of loneliness, like people. The gardens were beautiful this year. The heavy rains that winter had done them good. They were full of green and the trunks of the trees were shiny. Tiny tomatoes were beginning to appear. You could already see the yellow stamen on the male pistachio trees, and the female ones waiting. The males would go to the females. All the females could do was ready their juices, receive the male and bear fruit. They waited, in the burning heat, sensitive to any gust of wind that might bring them the seed. (pp. 50-51)

Maria is the most sexually liberated of the three girls, losing her virginity during a chance encounter with a physically attractive young man in the village. Nevertheless, she is quick to choose a life of stability and domesticity by marrying Marios, the boy who has worshipped her from childhood. The first of the three seasons ends with Maria and Marios’s wedding – the arrival of their first two children swiftly follow, one in each of the two subsequent summers.

Infanta is more withdrawn than her sisters, preferring the company of her beloved horse to that of her family. A beautiful, courageous girl at heart, Infanta spends most of her time riding in the countryside, often accompanied by Nikitas, a local boy who clears harbours feelings for her.

Katerina is perhaps the most romantic of the three girls, forever daydreaming and exercising her curiosity about the world around her. By the second summer, she is wildly in love with David, an astronomer who is also writing a book. For Katerina, love is a passionate thing, a feeling characterised by a sense of anticipation and anxiety, manifesting itself in a rapidly beating heart. And yet, by the end of the novel, she is oscillating between a desire for David and a yearning for a more adventurous, independent life, one in which she has the freedom to travel the world.

I’m not like Maria. I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves are still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone. (p. 20)

To complicate matters further, Katerina has an unexpected rival for David’s affections. Maria’s forty-five-year-old mother-in-law, Laura Parigori, is forever hanging around the young man, eager to capture his imagination and affections, much to the annoyance of Katerina.

Alongside the theme of sexual awakening, the novel offers different perspectives on the nature of love and marriage, society’s expectations of women at the time, and the balance between passion and stoicism. We learn more about Aunt Theresa, how an incident with her former fiancé has coloured her life, making her somewhat nervous and fearful as a consequence. There are other family secrets too – perhaps most notably the reason for Anna’s detachment and lack of passion, something that Katerina is curious to uncover.

While Three Summers may not be the most polished or literary of novels, its language is dreamy and evocative, capturing the sultry nature of summer in lush, sensuous prose. 

Mornings were different now. Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples, and left in your mouth the juicy, tart taste of apples eaten unpeeled. It was a delicate air, sometimes chilly. The sky was blue – a deep, rich blue – with white clouds racing by. (p. 81)

In the end though, it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities that are open to them and the limitations that society may wish to dictate. It’s a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the word; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the essence of the novel, replete with its languid, reflective prose. 

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own. They became the air we breathed; a thought of Maria’s became mine and mine Infanta’s – a kind of unearthly communion. (p.130)

(This is my second read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

29 thoughts on “Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I’ve had my eye in this one for a while after perusing NYRB for potential #WIT titles. Seems like a perfect summer read too.
    Your review makes it all the more tempting with an excellent choice of quotes that evoke the style.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this, Claire. It’s very evocative – redolent of the golden-hued summers of our adolescence when our lives were ahead of us. The sisters are beautifully portrayed too, almost akin to a Greek version of Little Women for the mid 20th-century.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds like a lovely read, Jacqui, especially if it can transport you to such a wonderful landscape! And I can understand why it’s a classic – and the theme of society’s expectations of women is always a perennial one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s classic Little Women territory, I think. Re-contextualised for the mid 20th-century. A cliche, I know, but really it does have the capacity to transport the reader to another time and place. So, if we can’t travel physically at the moment, we may as well try to escape through our reading. :)

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    This sounds absolutely fabulous, the summery feel and the story of three sisters sound like perfect #Witmonth reading. I must keep this one in mind for next year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is a book I would definitely recommend to you, Ali. I genuinely think you’d love it for the reasons you’ve picked out. Liberaki has taken great care with the characterisation here as each sister feels sufficiently fleshed-out and well differentiated from her siblings. It really is a very evocative novel.

      Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    This sounds really good Jacqui, loved the quotes that you pulled out. Luckily, I have this book on my shelves, I was fascinated by the premise and the cover when it was released! I am always drawn towards books that explore the opportunities or limitations for women in society.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really enjoy this, Radhika. Plus there are echos of certain elements of Rosamond Lehmann’s novels in the premise. Sisters considering their future lives/options in the mid 20th century – it’s not a million miles away from Olivia and Kate towards the end of Invitation to the Waltz.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, they do seem to have a particularly strong list. This is a lovely read for current balmy weather. Lush, languid and beautifully evocative – it captures the feel of those summers we look back on with an air of nostalgia.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s my first by a Greek writer – male or female. Interestingly, Liberaki’s daughter, Margarita Karapanou, also writes fiction. Her first novel, Kassandra and the Wolf, sounds very intriguing too!

      Reply
  5. Akylina

    Wonderful review, Jacqui! It definitely sounds like a suitable summer and WITmonth read :) I’ve never read any of Liberakis’s works, but I’m so glad to see her translated in English and in such a well-tended publication no less – I’ll have to seek her out in my local bookshop next time ;) There are quite a few modern Greek women writers that are worth reading, I’m hoping more of them get to be translated soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Akylina! It’s well worth seeking out, especially if you like novels with these sorts of themes: sisterhood, coming of age, major life choices etc. etc. As you say, it’s great to see NYRB reissuing something like this – a lesser-known classic, certainly outside of Greece. Have you read anything by Liberaki’s daughter, Margarita Karapanou? I recall hearing good things about Kassandra and the Wolf a few years ago…

      Reply
      1. Akylina

        I haven’t read anything by her daughter, Margarita Karapanou, either (I’m embarrassingly poorly read in my country’s literature!), although I’ve heard so much about Kassandra and the Wolf over the years. Although short and beautifully written, they say it’s a difficult book to read, as it deals with some pretty hefty themes like abuse.

        I did read a very interesting interview of Karapanou lately, where she talked about the intricate relationship she had with her mother, Liberaki, and even mentioned how the fact that they shared the same first name (Margarita) made her feel like she didn’t have a name that belonged to her, her own identity. They seem to have had quite a turbulent relationship and I’m very curious to see if and how that was reflected in their respective works. You’ve definitely given me incentive to seek them out now!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s so interesting about the relationship between the two women. I can imagine how it must have affected Karapanou, that sense of always feeling somewhat in the shadow of her mother, in spite of the success of Kassandra and the Wolf. Thanks so much for mentioning it. Now I’m intrigued to read the book, just to see how it compares to Three Summers. Interestingly, Liberaki’s novel was published in the year that Karapanou was born, so perhaps motherhood and family were uppermost in Liberaki’s mind at the time…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Dorian. It’s a very evocative portrait of sisterhood in adolescence, even if the writing/prose style could be more literary. I’ll take a look at your review, for sure.

      By the way, I’ve posted a few pieces on Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy over the past few months. As it’s a favourite of yours, they might be of interest? Link to the posts on Book 1 here (if you haven’t seen them already):

      https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2020/05/05/the-great-fortune-the-balkan-trilogy-book-1-by-olivia-manning-part-1/

      https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2020/05/08/the-great-fortune-the-balkan-trilogy-book-1-by-olivia-manning-part-2/

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    I couldn’t help but think of Little Women as I read your review, and also of the film Mustang since I know you love your film references! I should have included this in my summer reads.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, there are elements of both of these films in the novel; although, interestingly, the Turkish sisters’ environment is much more restrictive than the one Liberaki has created here. Pretty worrying really, particularly as Mustang is set in the 21st century…

      Reply
  7. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  8. buriedinprint

    This sounds very good. A little Colette, a little Gallant, a little Rumer Godden (girls on holiday). Like Madame Bibi, I find those NYRB’s seductive and winsome. Even when I think I’ve spotted one that seems less interesting from its cover, reading the back usually gets me in the end.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Colette is a good comparison, especially in terms of mood; and while I’ve never actually read Rumer Godden myself, I suspect you’re right to say there’s something of her in this novel, too. It was a lovely summer read, just right for a lazy afternoon in the sun!

      Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.