I finished Elizabeth Taylor’s novel In a Summer Season over my vacation, and although I had some reservations about it at first, by the end, I was converted. It is a slow-moving book, and although some dramatic things happen at the novel’s end, for the most part, the book is quiet in tone and action. My reading of the book suffered from comparison with my previous fiction read, Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which was about large-scale social and political events and about barely hanging on to humanity and life. In contrast, Taylor’s themes of marriage, money, and the problems of leisure seemed small.
But that was entirely unfair, since for many people those themes are not small, and I really do like the type of novel that excels at anatomizing relationships and conversations and everyday struggles. Once I had thoroughly moved out of the world of Blindness, I adjusted to Taylor’s different pace and atmosphere and began to enjoy it.
The story is about a widowed woman, Kate, in her 40s who has married again, this time a man 10 years younger than she. Before her first husband died, she had seemed to be heading into a quiet life of reading and walking and listening to music with her cultured husband; she has two children who are nearly grown up, and plenty of money with which to live comfortably. The new husband, Dermot, changes all that, however — he is a completely different type, interested in nights at the pub rather than in the living room, unable to get Henry James references Kate’s friends make, a little too interested in fancy cars and aware of the attractiveness of younger women. Everyone around Kate expects the marriage to fail; they are all waiting for it to happen, rather gleefully. Kate knows this, and she also knows that she loves Dermot, and part of the novel’s interest is in what happens to their marriage — the ways Kate makes sense of what is happening to Dermot and to herself.
Kate’s old friend Charles and his daughter move back into their neighborhood, and the novel traces the relationships among the two families, the way the past weighs on them all, for Charles’s wife has died, and the two dead spouses haunt the living.
What is so delicious about the novel is Taylor’s probing of the characters’ minds. The reference to Henry James is not gratuitous: Taylor dissects the speech and body language and interactions of her characters in a wonderfully Jamesian manner. This, I think, is one of my favorite novelistic modes. But Taylor refers repeatedly to one specific James novel, The Spoils of Poynton, a book about people’s obsession with taste and houses and objects. One of Taylor’s characters gets involved in an antiques business, an obvious reference to Spoils, but the entire novel explores the relationship of people to their place and their possessions. Dermot feels more like a guest in Kate’s home rather than someone who belongs there, and this awkward relationship to place tells us something about his character.
I’m curious as to why Elizabeth Taylor is better known in Britain than America; before becoming a blog reader, I had never heard of her and I don’t think people I know have heard of her either. It interests me the way reading tastes and author fortunes differ on either side of the ocean.