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'Love and Summer: A Novel' by William Trevor

As though struck by a lightning bolt, a married woman is at the mercy of her passions for a photographer in this story by a contemporary Irish master.

August 30, 2009|Nicholas Delbanco | Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel is "The Count of Concord."

That William Trevor has not yet received the Nobel Prize in Literature strikes me as a shame. Surely his absence from the list of laureates has more to do with the politics of national identity than a clear-eyed assessment of merit; no author writing in English today can claim a more extensive or accomplished body of prose. Trevor has published 14 novels and 12 collections of short stories as well as plays, works of nonfiction and the novellas "Nights at the Alexandra" and "Two Lives" (which contains the incandescent "Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria").

Such novels as "Felicia's Journey" and, most recently, "The Story of Lucy Gault" manage to be both claustrophobic and expansive, both lyrical and macabre -- a combination he has made his own since "The Old Boys" (1964) and "The Children of Dynmouth" (1976). When "The Collected Stories" appeared in 1993, its 1,200 pages seemed a kind of summing up; indefatigably, however, this octogenarian continues on an almost-annual basis to advance his art.

Born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, Trevor spent his childhood in provincial Ireland and draws much of his material from that region still. Now, with "Love and Summer," his gift of empathetic attention to the lives of "little" people remains on full display. The principal figures here are Ellie Dillahan, an orphan from the hill country married to an older farmer, and Florian Kilderry, a half-Italian photographer preparing to leave his inherited home. They meet by accident in the small Irish town of Rathmoye in the mid-1950s; the two are drawn to each other, and their shy secretive courtship comprises the bulk of the book. Both characters are cautious yet, in their dreams, daring; neither understands the stakes of the romantic game they play, and neither is practiced at love. Nor do they understand how closely they are being watched by others in the town.

Ellie's husband blames himself (and believes himself blamed) for an accident with a tractor that killed his first wife and child: "The time of year was difficult for Dillahan: it was in June seven years ago that the tragedy which had left him both widowed and childless had occurred. Try as he would, he could never prevent the memory from nagging when another June came, and lingering then until summer was finished with and the days were different." This portrait of a farmer at his solitary labor is a triumph of narrative precision and one wants to quote unstintingly from Trevor's lucid prose:

"Dillahan rose before his wife. Downstairs, he pulled out the dampers of the Rayburn stove and listened for the flutter of flames beginning before he tipped in anthracite. He waited for the kettle to boil, then made tea and shaved himself at the sink. In the yard, when he had opened the back door, his two sheepdogs ambled out of the shed where they slept to greet him. He murmured to them softly, one finger of each hand idly caressing their heads. He could tell from the air that it wasn't going to rain today."

Ellie, raised in a convent, is a dutiful consort to Dillahan and content with her own daily round. But the young stranger's arrival -- his searching glance -- constitutes a coup de foudre against which she is powerless: "She loved Florian Kilderry: silently she said that, and said it again while he rode off, out of the Square on to the Castledrummond road." And Kilderry himself is no practiced seducer; he's a dilettante with a large house and small income and artistic aspirations; forced to sell, he burns his photographs and memorabilia and, dreaming of Scandinavia, prepares to cycle off. Whether Ellie will accompany him is the question of the novel, and the answer feels inevitable. When Kilderry leaves, at summer's end: "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."

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