THE SUMMER OF '39

By Miranda Seymour

Norton. 230 pp. $23.95

In Miranda Seymour's fourth novel, Nancy Brewster, in her seventies and living alone in what was once her uncle's house on the Massachusetts shore, is writing the story of her life: "I have only one audience in mind for this story and I am not such a fool as to suppose that my memories of childhood summers here will be of any great interest to them. My two granddaughters, Judith and Catherine." She hasn't seen them for five years, and her dealings with their mother, her daughter Eleanor, are infrequent and edgy. But she feels a need to set down the facts as she knows them, to tell what is indeed a cautionary tale.

She was born Nancy Parker, the child of stern, prim, icy Old Bostonian parents who bestowed such love as it was in their power to give upon her brother. All she got from her mother was criticism and discipline. All she got from her father was a succession of nocturnal visits that began when she was a small girl and continued for a long time, times when he forced himself on her, with the result that "the fear of dark rooms has never left me" and, even more: "A love like the wind was what I wanted, free as the elements, a love that could carry me up to the sky and make me glorious, make me shine."

What subsequent experience taught her, though, was that "it doesn't do to depend on love." As a young woman she was sent off by her parents to New York, to live with her wealthy Cousin Kitty, the wife of an up-and-coming banker, a woman who "was as busy as it is possible to be if you have nothing to live for but yourself," an "advertiser's dream, the woman who believes in the transforming power of material possessions." Kitty was kind to Nancy, in her fashion: She replaced her dowdy Boston wardrobe with fashionable outfits, and took her to dinners and lunches and teas.

But New York did not come alive for Nancy until she met Chance Brewster, a literary publisher of little means but high hopes. He was "only interested in helping poets who haven't yet been discovered," and he was exactly what she had been looking for. She fell utterly in love with him; as for him, "I was only his love; language was his passion." He wanted "to publish a new kind of dictionary, more precise than any yet in existence," a project to which Nancy gave her wholehearted support from the instant of their marriage, and no small amount of her trust fund as well. The marriage was loving but, given Chance's protean moods and interests, unpredictable:

"In the first years of my married life, I lived in a state of constant uncertainty. I could be happy, radiant even, as if I stood inside some great chorus of music swelling up to the sky and I was one perfect note with my own place, my own right to joy. Other times, there was no coherence at all, just a sense of bewilderment and loss that set Chance and me on the opposite sides of a sheet of plate glass. And you could walk beside it for a whole day and never find a splinter or a crack. There were times when I lay at the bottom of a well of sorrow and couldn't even give it a name."

But the marriage held together. Eleanor's birth gave Nancy less joy than one might have expected--the connection between mother and daughter was uneasy from the start--but the birth of a son, Tom, brought her real happiness. They left New York to live at the run-down New Jersey farm of a close friend's parents, while Chance continued to work--albeit haphazardly and to little apparent effect--on his dictionary and other literary endeavors that engaged his passing attention.

Serious trouble first appeared in the form of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, the charismatic spiritualist and charlatan--an actual historical figure--who showed up in New York in the late 1920s and quickly bamboozled Chance, whose literary services he for a time engaged. That ended soon, but Chance's desire for a savior--and Nancy's, too--did not. Their attention turned to a woman named Isabel March, a poet who "believed in herself, more strongly than anybody I have ever known." Nancy invited her to the house on the shore, where by 1939 she and Chance were living, in the belief that she would help her come to terms with what was happening then in Europe, "the slippery approach of evil, sidling up on us, wrapping us round like a gray marsh fog."

Instead it was Isabel herself who was evil incarnate, with cruel and catastrophic consequences for Nancy, the revelation of which is the book's climax and denouement. Seymour tells the story with feeling and a fine sense of psychological subtleties, but the reader needs to be advised that she appends an "Author's Note" in which she traces its roots to the story of Robert Graves (a biography of whom she has written), Laura Riding and others of their crowd. Precisely why we are told this is unclear. As a novel, "The Summer of '39" stands well enough on its own; turning it into a roman a clef is unnecessary and gratuitous, and it's a pity that Seymour chose to do so.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.