After many weeks of illness, minor crises, and general mayhem, we had a very unusual week of peace and quiet. That, plus the fact that I chose shorter works after last week’s longer pick, meant that I was able to read two books this week instead of just one. And happily, the weather cooperated, so I was able to do some of that reading outside in our newly spring-cleaned gazebo. William Trevor’s Love and Summer came across the desk recently at work, it looked interesting, so I took it home, and picked Sue Sorenson’s A Large Harmonium from a recommended list of funny books on a newish Canadian website called The 49th Shelf.
Love and Summer, William Trevor
Vintage Canada, 212 pages
It’s summer in Rathmoye, a small town in rural Ireland. The people of Rathmoye gather for the funeral of the formidable Mrs. Connulty, whose prominence came from her strong devotion to the Catholic church coupled with the fact that she married into the family that owns most of the town. A well-dressed stranger arrives in their midst, taking photographs and attracting general curiosity. The stranger, as it turns out, is Florian Kilderry, the son of two local artists who have also died relatively recently, and he has returned to Rathmoye briefly to put their affairs in order. While in town, he attracts the eye of Ellie Dillahan, a lovely young farmwife whose life, from birth, has relied entirely upon the kindnesses and dictates of others. In lyrical, haunting prose, Love and Summer recounts what happens when a summer fling is perceived very differently by the two people involved, and what happens when that love affair occurs under the watchful eye of a small town. Trevor writes brilliantly of the crippling effects of loss, the strength of community, and the solace to be found in the many varieties of love. This book is melancholic perfection, and I can’t stress its beauty enough.
A Large Harmonium, Sue Sorenson
Coteau Books, 216 pages
Janey and Hector Erlicksen are fortysomething university professors in Winnipeg, Manitoba – she concentrates on contemporary literature in the English department, he is writing an opera and teaches in the Music department. They have an enviable marriage, full of friendship and passion. Janey and Hector have a four year old son, Max, who peppers the novel with periodic bouts of cuteness but is largely absent at playdates or in childcare. They love Max, but he is somewhat of a bit player in their adult-oriented lives. Their main priorities are each other and the microcosm of the university, fulfilling Freud’s mandate that adult life should be about love and work. Nevertheless, Janey finds herself at a loss, starting projects she never finishes, worrying needlessly about her husband’s loyalty, and feeling unnecessarily awkward when she interacts with anyone who is not her husband. Janey is a lovably vulnerable character in the tradition of Bridget Jones or Kate Reddy. Although not in a fully fledged depression, she is certainly in some sort of crisis, and A Large Harmonium follows Janey over the course of a year as she struggles to find herself again.
A Large Harmonium does an excellent job of capturing the displacement felt by many women in their thirties and forties. Told in a highly conversational, almost breezy style, the novel is funny in a fairly understated way and paints a very real portrait of academic life. The novel will resonate with fans of Elizabeth Berg, Laurie Colwin and other writers who handle the passages of women’s lives with warmth and humour.