Anything further that can written about William Trevor’s work in the final phase of his career is necessarily a paean, not a review. Having won countless important awards, had his writing adapted successfully to stage and screen, been compared to Shakespeare, and been knighted for his “services to literature,” one can safely say without understatement that Trevor has moved beyond the need or necessity for critical assessment.
This “review” thus begins with the informed bias that Trevor does not write bad books (at least none that I have ever read or heard about); he writes, rather, poignant (a cliché, but an apt one), almost robotically perfect fiction, whether it is short, like the vast majority of his work, or part of his less frequent novelistic output of which Love and Summer now forms a part. The novel has already been long-listed for this year’s Man-Booker Prize (Trevor has been nominated five times but never won), the winner of which is to be announced in early October.
Despite the fact that he has lived half of his 81 years in England, Trevor is still considered an Irish writer, and most of his stories take place in Ireland. He has said in interviews that being in England allows him the distance and perspective necessary to write about the country of his birth.
Love and Summer, accordingly, is set in a small Irish town, Rathmoye, where a funeral is underway for a pillar of the community, Mrs. Connulty, whose family is said to “own half the town.” The local priest has suggested a garden or stained glass window by way of tribute to her, but at least one local resident, her daughter, does not share in the enthusiasm. Gradually we learn the source of Miss Connulty’s bitterness. An early romance led to a pregnancy whose termination was arranged by her father—an act that caused her mother to effectively excommunicate the two of them for the rest of her days.
So it is that Miss Connulty finds herself compassionately alert to the seduction of a local girl, Ellie, by Florian, a young man who creates waves when he arrives by bicycle from a neighbouring town to photograph Rathmoye’s derelict theatre and, unintentionally, the Connulty funeral. We also come to know Ellie’s story. An orphan raised by nuns in a convent, she is hired by the sisters of a local widower to work on his farm after his wife and child are killed in a tragic accident. Eventually, her employer asks Ellie to marry him and she agrees, their married life being based on the fact of his kindness and the assumption of her gratitude. When Florian arrives out of nowhere, Ellie is blindsided by unfamiliar feelings, having been sheltered all her life from passion of any kind:
She hadn’t been aware that she didn’t love her husband. Love hadn’t come into it, had never begun in a way that was different from the love spoken of so often by the nuns of Cloonhill, its brightly visible sign burning perpetually, as it did above the kitchen doorway in the farmhouse, as it had for the woman who once had scoured the saucepans that now were hers, and for other women before that.
But the candle Florian burns is not for Ellie. Of mixed Irish/Italian descent, Florian’s preoccupation is with an Italian cousin he knew in his youth and will likely never see again. He busies himself with the sale of the rambling country mansion that was his late parents’ legacy to him and plans to move to Scandinavia, with its promise of ascetic remoteness. Ellie is simply a diversion for Florian, who comes off as not so much consciously manipulative as selfishly negligent: “He hadn’t noticed the ring he saw when he looked for it now—so skimpy, so unemphatic on her finger it could have come out of a Hallowe’en barm brack.”
The usual Trevor stalwarts are all here: pain, awkwardness, interiority and hopelessness. Love and Summer is neither better nor worse than his other work of the past twenty, or even forty years—but this is beside the point: what we look to Trevor for is the ecstasy of each story’s measured, inevitable unfurling.
Trevor has said in interviews that he doesn’t take himself seriously, having evidently left that job to everyone who reads him. He does not write, ostensibly, about “big ideas,” but rather truthfully and trenchantly about the small, recognizable details that make up average lives. Love in Trevor is unrequited, hopes are dashed, and dreams are thwarted and yet we come back, time and again, looking for more.