They sat for longer at the table, the cigarette Florian had put out to smoke unsmoked, the tea he’d made gone cold. This was what he would take with him, he thought. This was what he would leave behind. These moments now would haunt whole days.
Love and Summer: what a beguiling title, full of sunshine and promise! But this quiet little novel turns out instead to be full of heartbreak, of lives that have lost the bright sheen of hope and settled into melancholy that is all the sadder for being somehow, thanks to Trevor’s delicate treatment, quite beautiful.
It has this quality in common with The Story of Lucy Gault, which I read last summer and loved. The earlier novel, however, is fast-paced and action-packed compared to Love and Summer, which drifts along so gently you almost don’t notice how much pain many of its characters are living with, or discover along the way. It starts with the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, for example, whose life “had been one of good works and resolution, with a degree of severity in domestic and family matters.” Her daughter–now known only as “Miss Connulty,” because “twenty years ago, her mother ceased to address her by either of the saints’ names she had been given at birth”–hardly mourns, and we gradually realize that’s because of how she suffered from Mrs. Connulty’s “severity.” She carries with her the memory of a trip with her father to a chemist’s shop in Dublin; “her mother said that he was a murderer when they got back,” and ever after he slept in the attic. Miss Connulty’s past has made her severe as well, not because she is harsh by nature but because she remembers what love was, or could have been–and this, in turn, makes her fierce in its defense. “If Dillahan turns her out she’ll come here,” she says of the young woman whose illicit summer love is the crux of the novel’s plot; “Ellie Dillahan will live in this house and hold her head up.”
As for Ellie, her expectations of happiness in her life are low enough to content her with her marriage to a man burdened by guilt and grief for his part in the accidental death of his first wife and their baby. It isn’t until she glimpses Florian Kilderry passing through her small community that she is awakened to the possibility of something more. Theirs is a sweet friendship but not a great mutual passion, and by the end of the summer Florian himself regrets the part he has played in it and the price Ellie pays in dashed dreams:
He had pitied the infant left in the corner of some yard or on a convent step, had pitied the child given a place among the unwanted, the girl who had become a servant. Her loneliness had been his when they were friends — before, too greedily, he asked too much of friendship, and carelessly allowed a treacherous love to flourish. She had come to him, and pity now was nourished by his greater guilt, and guilt was lent some part of pity’s dignity.
Their romance–such as it is–cannot survive, but there is no great cataclysm, no confrontation, no epiphany, just confusion and disappointment and recognition that they each belong, in fact, to a different story, a different life. Ellie must stay, and Florian must go:
He cycled slowly, the air raw on his face. The signpost to Crilly was lit up by his lamp as he went by. The road straightened, became a hill to freewheel down, and then the twists and turns began again. How useless being sorry was, and yet that, most of all, was what he felt, a soreness in him somewhere. Her grey-blue eyes had been no more than smudges in the dark.
Miss Connulty sees him go, and alone in her own darkness she imagines a future in which she and Ellie are close, bound by their secret pasts, “both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.”
It’s an intensely small-scale and personal novel, but I thought Trevor was also drawing out a particularly Irish tragedy through Miss Connulty’s suffering for her “craven appetites” and the story of Ellie’s stern convent upbringing:
You were punished if you repeated bad words. You were punished if you talked to the delivery men, or whispered ‘You Are My Sunshine’ or “Besame Mucho’. You were punished if you danced in the ballroom. You accepted what there was. You were fortunate.
Dillahan too struggles under the weight of what he fears are the community’s judgments (“Is it put about I could see her behind the trailer? . . . Sometimes at Mass I’d know people would be looking at me”). It felt somehow flighty, careless almost, of Florian to be so set on leaving–so ready to leave Ellie behind–but his departure also brings a sense of welcome escape, of the past letting go of him, so that he at least can be free and happy in the sunshine:
The last of Ireland is taken from him, its rocks, its gorse, its little harbours, the distant lighthouse. He watches until there is no land left, only the sunlight dancing over the sea.