I am very suggestible: Last year, Miss Kate’s review of Edith Wharton’s Summer was posted on Pajiba and, after reading it, I instantly downloaded and printed the book from the Gutenberg free book site. Bringing myself to read it took a while. In 1989, I read Wharton’s Ethan Frome and it’s a book I have a clear memory of reading: I was sitting on a blanket in my parents’ back yard in June. Wharton wrote so evocatively, that the reading experience became confused with the emotional and literal winter she describes so compellingly, and was quite thoroughly depressing. It’s taken me 23 years to summon the courage to read another of her books.
In Summer, Charity Royall lives in a remote New England town and runs the small local library. She is the ward of Mr. Royall, a widower who has decided that he should like to marry Charity now that she is 18. At the same time, Lucius Harney comes to town trailing cosmopolitan sophistication and visions of the outside world. Lucius is an architect surveying local properties of interest. Charity is smitten and begins a relationship with him and then, of course, it all goes quietly and profoundly wrong.
Wharton masterfully portrays Charity’s complicated emotions and seems to specialize in self-contained characters who can’t get out of their own way; trapped by their own intentions, prejudices, and self-imposed limitations, they lead lives of quiet desperation. It’s heartbreaking, and horrible, and resolves itself in small kindnesses which will not provide any long-term relief to the pain of their shuttered existences.