REVIEW: Summer by Edith Wharton
If I recall correctly, I’ve read just two Edith Wharton books: Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. I recently reread synopses of the plots of these books to refresh my memory, and confirmed that they were both as depressing as I had recalled. Well written and compelling, but very sad. I gave The House of Mirth an A and Ethan Frome a B. Summer is set in New England, like Ethan Frome (apparently the only two of Wharton’s books with that setting and also rare in that neither depict New York’s Gilded Age aristocracy as most of Wharton’s work does).
Charity Royall lives in the small town of North Dormer, a place that appears to offer little to hold the interest of a young person, particularly one as restless as Charity. She works at North Dormer’s small and neglected library, a job she took solely to save money in the hopes of leaving town someday. She’s not exactly devoted to her job; in fact she often comes late and leaves early when she can get away with it.
Charity was born “up the mountain” from North Dormer, among the impoverished and lawless (and it’s hinted at, rather inbred – everyone seems to have the last name Hyatt) people who live there. For reasons that were never quite clear to me, Charity was adopted as a newborn by North Dormer’s leading citizen, Lawyer Royall, and his wife. Mrs. Royall appears to have been a nonentity who died sometime when Charity was a child.
In spite of being raised by Lawyer Royall, Charity doesn’t ever seem to have a close relationship to him, though she does at one point give up the chance to go to boarding school because she feels too guilty leaving him all alone. Their relationship is irrevocably damaged when he makes a pass at her one night. His behavior is, of course, disgusting, but he comes off as more of a pathetic, lonely old man than a lech (at least to me). Still, Charity feels understandably unsafe with him and insists he hire a live-in woman to cook and clean. There’s also a sense on both of their parts after the incident that she has something she can hold over him to get what she wants.
Charity’s life changes when a young man named Lucius Harney stops by the library. He’s an architect studying some of the notable local buildings, and he and Charity are immediately attracted to one another. Lucius comes from a world that Charity can only imagine but longs to be a part of. Even though Lawyer Royall is a notable and learned citizen of North Dormer, he’s mostly a big fish in a little pond (and he appears to like it that way). The world of Lucius Harney – or of Annabel Balch, a wealthy young woman who sometimes stays with relatives in North Dormer – is one of refinement and education. Charity’s understanding of and longing for such a life is an inchoate thing – she doesn’t seem to have a thirst for learning or even a very developed sense of what she is missing out on. What she has is a sort of mulish, resentful certainty that the world has something better to offer than she can get in North Dormer.
As weeks go by, Charity’s relationship with Harney waxes and wanes – first they have a friendship in which she drives him around to local spots of interest in a hired buggy, and he begins boarding at Lawyer Royall’s house. But Royall becomes jealous and runs Harney off, and Charity thinks she’s lost her chance with him. The two end up making a furtive Fourth of July trip to a nearby larger town to watch fireworks. A chance encounter with her guardian humiliates Charity – she finds him in the company of prostitutes and drunk, and he lashes out at her in self-defense. After that, Charity and Harney’s relationship becomes entirely secret. They begin meeting in an abandoned cabin and consummate the relationship.
Charity is a sympathetic character but not a likable one – she’s sullen and distasteful of the people around her. Her relationship with Lawyer Royall was hard for me to understand. Maybe it was a New England thing, but the distance between them, considering that she had been with him since childhood, didn’t quite track. I understood her disgust of his actions, and even before that, a child disdaining a parent (or parent-figure) may not be admirable, but it’s not rare. It was more that Charity didn’t seem to feel *anything* about Lawyer Royall, one way or another. She is curiously detached from him. Late in the book she reflects:
She had always thought of him–when she thought of him at all–as of someone hateful and obstructive, but whom she could outwit and dominate when she chose to make the effort.
Her indifference is in keeping with her personality in general. Viewed through a modern lens, it feels like Charity suffers from a constant low-grade depression. Again, I had sympathy for her, but she didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities for most of the book.
I’ll spoiler-mark the ending just in case:
The ending was surprising to me in that if I had read ¾ of the book and then been given the bare details of the ending, I would have considered it extremely downbeat, a defeat of sorts for Charity. But as it’s written, it’s strangely hopeful, or at least peaceful. I’m not sure how I feel about that, and I’m curious as to whether I took it in the way Wharton intended it to be taken, or not. Either way, this is a beautifully written book, and on that alone I’m giving it an A-.