Wednesday, 3 June 2015

'Summer' by Edith Wharton (1917)

Synopsis: Charity Royall is 18 years old and lives in a small, sleepy village called North Dormer in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. Charity was born in an isolated, crime-ridden community called "the Mountain". She was eventually taken away from the area and became the ward of a well off middle-class couple called the Royalls. Mrs Royall is now dead and Mr Royall has become a heavy drinker. He and Charity have an awkward, strained relationship and are barely on speaking terms. Bored and lonely, Charity has taken up a part-time job at the local library in the hope of eventually saving up enough money to escape her surroundings. At the library, Charity then meets a handsome young architect from Boston called Lucius Harney who has come to make sketches of some of the local buildings. Charity and Lucius are instantly attracted to one another and over the course of the summer they become lovers. But when Charity then discovers that Lucius is hiding something from her she's left not only heartbroken but in a deeply difficult position.

Summer is the second story from Edith Wharton that I've read this year as I read her novel The Age of Innocence about two months ago and absolutely loved it. It instantly became one of my favourite books and it definitely made me want to read more of Wharton's other works. After finding out that there was going to be a film adaptation of Summer I figured I'd make that one my next Wharton book. Edith Wharton is generally more famous for her New York high society novels and I understand that Summer is rather unique amongst her works (and a bit more obscure) due to its New England setting and the fact that it features middle and working-class characters. But Summer deserves to be much more widely known because it was a very interesting read and I continue to be in awe of Wharton's beautiful prose! Her writing is extremely atmospheric and lyrical and the three locations in which Summer takes place - North Dormer, the Mountain, and the large and lively town of Nettleton- are all so vividly described and distinctive that they became characters in their own right. Wharton's writing also shows a huge amount of sympathy and compassion for the plight of the poor.

Summer is a very short novel - in fact it's actually a novella - but considering its length I was kind of shocked at how complex and well-rounded the central characters were. Charity is quite a flawed heroine and it took me a while to warm to her. At the start of the story she comes across as being really quite immature and sulky but that being said I was always very interested in her storyline and my heart went out to her as the book progressed. I found that I could even relate to Charity to a certain extent as she wants to have more independence and to see a bit more of the world but is being held back by her limited finances. The character that I found the most compelling in this story though was Mr Royall as he seems to be suffering from intense depression and self-loathing for much of the story (we never quite learn the reason for this) and he's pretty morally ambiguous. I mean on the one hand the fact that he's sexually attracted towards Charity is undeniably creepy given that she's basically his adopted daughter and he does humiliate the poor girl at the 4th of July festival (yes, he was drunk and was furious at seeing her with Lucius but that still doesn't excuse his behaviour). But on the other hand Mr Royall seems to genuinely love Charity and to have her best interests at heart - and he does partly redeem himself at the end by saving Charity from a horrible life. Unfortunately, I wasn't as satisfied with Wharton's characterisation of Lucius as I was with her Charity and Mr Royall. He reminded me a little bit of John Willoughby from Austen's Sense and Sensibility only he didn't seem to have any of that character's complexity or depth.

Summer was a beautifully-written and compelling read and I found both the story and its complicated characters thought-provoking and haunting. I really enjoyed the ending of the book as well. Considering the time in which the book is set Charity ends up in the best possible position for a woman in her situation and gets a much happier ending than Fantine or Tess Durbeyfield! I have to admit that I didn't love Summer as much as The Age of Innocence though. The overall themes in that novel are richer and more powerful and I found its characters a bit more engaging and sympathetic, but nevertheless I still thought that Summer was a brilliant read and I now firmly consider Edith Wharton to be one of my favourite authors.

Finally I desperately hope that the film adaptation of Summer actually gets made. It's kind of bizarre. The film has an Imdb page and the director wrote a tweet about the project - which basically announced that Hailee Steinfeld and Richard Armitage would be starring in it - but they then deleted the tweet and there hasn't been any kind of an official press announcement about the film since then. It looks like there's been some kind of a stumbling block in the production :( I'll be gutted if the project gets cancelled because the book could make for a great film and Richard Armitage would slay the role of Mr Royall! Gah!

Rating: 5/5


Hamlette said...

Edith Wharton is one of those authors I keep meaning to read, but haven't gotten to yet. Soon! This does sound particularly intriguing.

Hannah said...

I was the same. It's taken me years to start reading Edith Wharton! And, yes, this is a very intriguing book!