Wednesday, August 1, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Summer by Edith Wharton

It felt like time to read a classic, so I chose Summer by Edith Wharton.

Charity Royall is a beautiful young woman who was brought up in the home of a small-town lawyer and his wife in North Dormer, Massachusetts. The tiny, rural town lives in the shadow of "The Mountain," which is home to a community of impoverished, uneducated, hopeless people who are scorned and feared by the whole town. Charity had been born to a woman on The Mountain, but was brought down by Mr. Royall as a young child. He was doing a good deed for a man he had sent to prison for murder, Charity’s father.

Charity lives a lonely, isolated existence as the town’s librarian. She lives with Mr. Royall but she despises him. He’d come to her one night after his wife died, hoping to sleep with her, but she turned him away in horror. Since then, he’s kept his distance.

One day, a young man comes to town to spend time with his aunt while studying local architectural history. In short, he seduces Charity.

There is a stark difference between the colorless loneliness and lack of future that Charity feels before Lucius Harney arrives and the bright, passionate, living-for-the-moment existence that she discovers when she is with him. The romance is bittersweet. The reader knows that this will not work out well. Lucius appears to be gentle and kind to her. However, she feels unworthy of him – she is, after all, descended from mountainfolk, while he is an educated city dweller. Worse, he feels superior to her. The gulf between them makes any marriage so far out of the question that it never comes up until the issue is forced. Lucius may not consider her a suitable option for a wife, but he is perfectly content to use her and let her believe he’s in love.

All the while, Mr. Royall tries to warn her, earning only her anger and hatred. He’s an unpleasant character as well, significantly older and prone to drunkenness. But he provides a sort of safety net for her. And eventually, she needs that safety net. She becomes pregnant. Lucius takes off with vague promises to return.

Charity decides to run back to the Mountain where she believes her people are, but discovers pretty quickly that she can’t return to that community of despair. She cannot raise her own child there.

With nowhere to turn, she finds Mr. Royall coming to her rescue. He still wants to marry her and provide for her. Passively, she lets this happen too.

The story is depressing as many of Wharton’s works are. It’s beautifully written and Charity’s musings and distraction as Lucius becomes her whole world illustrate wonderfully the all-encompassing nature of a first love. Charity’s naivete and almost determined blindness to reality are heartbreaking but realistic. The reader (and Mr. Royall) can see that the young man is using Charity. But it’s easy to see how she falls for him nevertheless. The ending is ambiguously painful. Is she fortunate to have Mr. Royall’s devotion to fall back on? Or was it her inevitable fate to end up miserably trapped in a life with him?