When I was a brand-new teacher, I received some advice from a master of the trade. “When you want the full attention of your class,” he suggested, “try lowering your voice.” To my immense surprise, it worked. For at least a few moments, my students listened so hard they barely seemed to breathe.
In literature, this handy trick could perhaps be called the Trevor effect. Irish master of the craft William Trevor has published 14 novels (including “Two Lives” and “Felicia’s Journey”) and 12 collections of short stories. His books and stories are full of characters who whisper rather than shout their feelings and yet somehow, through their very stillness, command our full attention.
Love and Summer, Trevor’s new novel is a simple, perfectly pitched study of the passion that – although barely acknowledged on the surface – may gnaw destructively at the roots of otherwise quiet lives.
The story is set in an Irish farm town “some years after the middle of the last century.” Rathmoye is “a town in a hollow that had grown up there for no reason that anyone knew or wondered about.” Farmers bring their livestock, merchants sell seeds, locals run small errands, and the young complain that nothing ever happens. Or so it seems.
One June evening, a young man on a bicycle asks directions of a young woman he has never seen before. It turns out that she is Ellie Dillahan, a fresh-faced young farm wife. Raised as an orphan (by nuns who had “emphasized the virtues of clarity over flamboyance”), Ellie considers herself lucky to have married her widower husband, although he’s some years her senior. He is kind to her and she enjoys the luxury of a home of her own, even if it’s a rather remote farm. She and her husband are conscientious and considerate and live in a state of sufficient contentment. At least, until she meets the man on the bicycle.
He is Florian Kilderry, the product of an improbably happy marriage between an Irish solider and an Italian aristocrat. His impractical parents used his mother’s family money to buy a lovely old home in the Irish countryside where they could while away their lives, painting watercolors and doting on Florian, their beloved only child. But they have since passed on, leaving Florian alone with a crumbling manse and little inclination for work of any kind. His only plan for the future is to sell the house and use the proceeds to live abroad, probably in Scandinavia (a region he doesn’t know but pictures as “uncluttered, orderly ... [with] houses clustered around a tidy square, a church’s wooden spire.”)
But the sweet simplicity of Ellie touches Florian and he soon draws her into a clandestine friendship – and eventually an affair. The two spend the summer pedaling their bicycles to secret meeting places, sharing meals at a distant tearoom, and enjoying surcease from their mutual loneliness.
But as the summer wanes it becomes clear that there will be a price to be paid for these small scraps of stolen happiness. Sadly, it seems that Ellie – who loves in the desperate manner of a young woman experiencing her first passion – will pay the heavier price.
One of the joys of “Love and Summer” is the perfect economy of language employed by Trevor’s characters. They waste not a word, even in their internal musings. When Ellie’s husband fills his empty house by marrying her, a neighbor tells him, “ ’Tis better so, ’tis better.” When Florian ponders his own losses, Trevor simply records, “He minded at first, later much less. The house was full of books; he read a lot.”
Most often it is the landscape that hints – in a mode reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, that other great chronicler of rural Anglo Saxon life – at what the novel’s characters may feel. While the romance between Ellie and Florian flourishes, the summer is lush and green around them. But as fall approaches, there’s a subtle shift in terrain. “Larks flitted from one high stone to another. Above a carcass not yet picked over a buzzard was stationary in the air. Higher on the hillside, a lone sheep moved slowly. ‘Don’t be unhappy, Ellie,’ ” her lover cajoles.
Despite the title of this book, it most often has an autumnal feel. Summer may have its brief, verdant interlude, but we know it won’t last. And when passion recedes, it is clear that all that will endure will be the quiet, steady rhythms of the countryside and the various beings who strive to wrest a living from its soil.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.