By Elizabeth Strout
Sunday, September 20, 2009
LOVE AND SUMMER
By William Trevor
Viking. 212 pp. $25.95
A middle-aged woman whispers that "love was a madness" to the young and guileless Ellie Dillahan in William Trevor's new novel, "Love and Summer." She ought to know: The conveyor of this knowledge, Miss Connulty, had an earlier brush with love that cost her a great deal, the particularities of which are given to the reader with the delicacy and precision of a master storyteller. Miss Connulty's private woe is only one of the secret tales of loss that circulate through the Irish town of Rathmoye. Everyone, as Trevor knows so well, has a story. No character in this book goes unnoticed; no one is forgotten. For those readers who have loved the generosity and beauty of Trevor's work (he has written 27 books of fiction), "Love and Summer" will be one more entry into a world that is both heart-breaking and deeply fulfilling.
The main story belongs to Ellie Dillahan. Parentless, raised in a convent, Ellie is sent to work for a widowed farmer who has lost both wife and child in an accident. By the time the story begins, Ellie is married to the kind-hearted farmer, and "she hadn't been aware that she didn't love her husband." If the two had been able to have children, it's easy to imagine that Ellie's attention would have been taken up with them. But this is not the case, and her days are spent in isolation as she does her chores around the farm and prepares the meals for her husband, who "was not by nature an inquisitive man."
When Florian Kilderry bicycles into town taking random photographs of a funeral, Ellie catches sight of him, and as the summer progresses, she falls in love with him. With her husband busy tending to his sheep and his fields, Ellie bicycles to her meetings with Florian in a remote spot in the countryside.
Trevor's understanding of the human heart is large, and he shows us what most of us realize is true: The appearance of paying attention can inflame deep feelings. "The more he asked her about her childhood at Cloonhill the more Ellie loved her interrogator." Florian is a young dilettante, whose own heart was captured long ago in an unrequited love for a cousin, but he enjoys the company of Ellie; she is a distraction.
Trevor, also the author of "The Story of Lucy Gault" and "Death in Summer," moves around this story with breathtaking ease; he can change point of view quickly -- his narrative voice is that sure. We learn what it is to be the bitter and brittle Miss Connulty; we are allowed inside the mind of Orpen Wren, who has for years lived in his own dementia; we inhabit the vague worry that Dillahan experiences as he considers his wife's unhappiness; almost everyone here has a chance to invite our sympathies. Even Florian Kilderry, given the role of the ruthless cad, is, in the hands of Trevor, neither ruthless nor a cad, but one more lost and feckless person who seems to woo Ellie only half-heartedly while in the process of selling his deceased parents' house. His inability to love anything, or anyone, other than the abstract romantic memory of his cousin, carries its own scent of the tragic.
When Trevor chooses to leave the inner mind of a character, he lingers on aspects of the physical world, and in this way we live where these people do. He lingers over the way that Miss Connulty prepares food for her overnight lodgers. He lingers on Ellie's own domestic duties, and on the dogs that are part of the Dillahan farm. He lingers on the moments that tell us the summer is moving by.
Mostly, and most important, what Trevor does is make us believe and care. Ellie, at the start of this slim book, is incapable of dishonesty. By the end she has bought a "holdall" to pack her few things as she plans to leave with Florian. While it may not be hard for us to believe that a young woman falls for the wrong young man, it is hard for Ellie to believe, and it is this aspect of human emotion that Trevor captures so swiftly. Florian, it should be noted, has an admirable level of self-understanding, even if he does not put it to use. As he prepares to leave, he "felt that he belonged in his own created world of predators, that he was himself a variation of their cruelty. He had taken what there was to take, had exorcized, again, his nagging ghost. And doing so, in spite of tenderness, in spite of affection for a girl he hardly knew, he had made a hell for her."
The fate of Ellie will not be revealed here. We close the book agreeing with Miss Connulty that there is love that is a madness. But we also know there is love that soothes and brings dignity to the suffering endured. This is what we feel in Trevor's strong, able and exquisitely gentle storytelling hands.
Elizabeth Strout is the author of "Olive Kitteridge," winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.