When Letitia Davenant dies unexpectedly, her death becomes the first of three that summer. All together, these deaths form a kind of frame for this seamless tale of loss and reversal in the English countryside.
William Trevor's 12th novel, Death in Summer, is a wonderfully evoked work of subtlety and insight. Often compared to Chekhov, Trevor lets us see the world as if through the very hearts of his characters.
On the morning of his wife's death, Thaddeus Davenant receives a request for help from a former love, now ill and without resources. But before he can act on this, he suddenly finds himself a widower with a daughter to raise. A solitary man, even in his loveless marriage, Thaddeus lets his mother-in-law talk him into interviewing prospective nannies for his daughter. When none of the candidates proves suitable, the mother-in-law herself decides to take on the role, though both she and Thaddeus are less than comfortable with the arrangement, "They hover, like uncertain birds. They skirt emotion, steer clear of words that might drag it out of hiding." But one of the rejected candidates for the position, an unbalanced young woman named Pettie, has begun to develop dangerously romantic fantasies about Thaddeus and his daughter. Half convincing herself that he has fallen in love with her in the course of the brief interview, she tells her ovoid friend Albert, "A mansion . . . he's left with this kid in a mansion." It is in the delineation of the characters of Pettie and Albert that Death in Summer is at its most compassionate. The threadbare lives of these two grown-up orphans sadly unravel as Pettie begins to act out her fantasies. Unaware of the sinister possibilities just below the surface of his life, Thaddeus tries to deal with the claims of his former love and the new presence of his mother-in-law in his home.
With its surprise and subtle humor, Death in Summer takes on suspense as it depicts the strands which bind its characters together as well as the chains which enclose them in solitary longing. How precarious are our lives, the story seems to suggest, lightly suspended above a darkness which can bring ruin out of a single summer day. Trevor continues to be a master stylist of the highest order, generally recognized as one of the greatest living writers. Here again, as in his Collected Stories and the recent novel, Felicia's Journey, he blends his narrative skills with an all-encompassing sympathy for his characters. Death in Summer is a dark and suspenseful story of death in life and life out of death. Ingeniously crafted, it is told with the compassion of a great heart.
James William Brown is the author of Blood Dance.