In his new novel, William Trevor, once a sculptor, expertly chisels out the story hidden in marble
Ellie Dillahan loves Florian Kilderry. You can be sure that unhappiness lies in wait.
William Trevor begins “Love and Summer,’’ his sad tale of hopeless love, on a June evening in the middle of the last century in Rathmoye, Ireland. The town’s most prominent citizen, the imperious Mrs. Eileen Connulty, proprietress of the bed-and-breakfast at Number 4 The Square, has just died. Poor old Orpen Wren, rattled with dementia, thinks the body in the coffin belongs to a kitchen maid who passed 34 years ago.
In the morning, as the town pays its somber respects, a stranger, our Florian, rides into town on his Golden Eagle bicycle and surreptitiously photographs the funeral. He is “a polite, unpretending presence,’’ a man given to reticence and solitude and with a “fondness for concealment.’’ He is also muddled, aimless, adrift, and bankrupt. Florian is selling off his decaying family home, applying for a passport, and planning to leave Ireland.
When he asks her for directions to the burned-out cinema, Florian catches Ellie’s eye, and when, days later, the two speak for the second time while Florian shops for chicken-and-ham paste at the Cash and Carry, Ellie is alarmed to realize that she doesn’t love her husband. Her marriage to the older Mr. Dillahan is based on kindness and necessity, yes, and on affection, but not on passion.
Ellie had been a foundling, one of those children who “wonder who it is who doesn’t want them,’’ raised by nuns in the orphanage at Cloonhill. When Mr. Dillahan’s first wife and baby were killed in a horrific accident, a catastrophe that torments him still, Ellie was sent to his remote farm as a housekeeper. In time, the housekeeper became the wife.
Florian returns Ellie’s love with tenderness. They carry on their affair among the ruins of Lisquin, the razed estate of the prosperous and long-gone St. John family, away from the eyes of the townsfolk, but not beyond the notice of the addled Wren and the curious Miss Connulty, Eileen’s estranged and embittered daughter.
Trevor worked as a sculptor, so it’s no surprise, perhaps, that he is a master of the art of omission. He sees the story in the marble, as it were, and carves to set it free. What Trevor leaves out of “Love and Summer’’ are precisely the concerns that might attract the lesser writer: the larger world beyond the heart-rending lives in this compact, ordinary town and the ardent lovers entwined in the throes of passion. What he examines and explores, more significantly, are shame, desire, the tyranny of the past, what is unknown, and what goes unspoken.
Let me just say it. Trevor is at the top of his game here, and his game is better than anyone else’s. No one, save perhaps Alice Munro and Alistair MacLeod, no one writes with such clarity, subtlety, grace, and precision. No one can stun you with the fresh, usual word as he can. Trevor looks at the world an inch at a time, and nothing escapes his gaze, not the carelessly folded newspaper under the arm, not the flies of another summer darkening the windowsill. His storytelling is unsentimental and faithful to the ambiguities of life.
Trevor is acutely alert to the eloquence of silence and to the nuance of public discourse. Here the town’s concern and curiosity with the Dillahans’ confounding childlessness is expressed with admirable and disarming civility:
“Is himself in form?’’
“He’s all right,’’ Ellie said.
“And yourself, Mrs. Dillahan?’’
“I’m all right.’’
Every person we meet in “Love and Summer’’ is the central character in his or her own story. Bernadette O’Keeffe loves and pursues the tidy, meticulous, resolutely sober, and utterly oblivious Joseph Paul Connulty. Wren imagines that Florian is the returning scion of the St. John family, for whom he thinks he still works. Wren has a message for Mr. Dillahan concerning his wife and this interloper - if only he could find his way to the farm.
Miss Connulty savors her mother’s “delicious death,’’ and envies Ellie her romantic prospects. Her own day, she laments, has passed. Once in her youth, she invited Arthur Tetlow, “a traveler in veterinary requirements, trapped in a marriage in Sheffield’’ up to her small room, an indiscretion that culminated in a medical procedure in the back room of a Dublin chemist’s shop. Mr. Tetlow himself “disappeared into the war taking with him the promises he had made in good faith and the future they had talked about.’’
As the summer draws to a close, Ellie remains torn between her love for Florian and her betrayal of a kind and decent man. For his part, Florian, who loves being loved, understands that Ellie is another in a series of romances designed to distract him from his impossible love for, and unreasonable devotion to, his cousin Isabella. He says, “We’ve had our summer, Ellie.’’ And she responds, “Without you, there is nothing.’’
You’ll find it hard to leave Rathmoye, this provincial town in which, seemingly, nothing happens. You’ll start reading the book slowly, a page at a time, so it will not end. You’ll begin to look at your world through its lens. And when you reach the finish, you’ll need a moment to catch your breath.
John Dufresne’s most recent book is the novel “Requiem, Mass.’’