A novel about an aging couple who return to their country estate in Ireland, and the American niece who comes to spend the summer with them. 1952.
I very clearly remember the first time I heard of May Sarton. I was browsing in a used bookstore, not really intending to buy anything, when among the many rows a slim volume caught my eye. Journal of a Solitude. I remember thinking so clearly: If I published my journal, that’s what I would call it.
So I suppose it’s no surprise—especially considering how much I enjoyed Journal of a Solitude—that when I saw May Sarton’s name again in a used bookstore, I didn’t even hesitate to pick it up. It also inspired me to read up a little more about Sarton herself. It turns out that aside from her non-fiction, which is beautiful and deeply personal, she’s well-recognized as a poet.
Reading A Shower of Summer Days, this makes a lot of sense. The prose flows along so gracefully, it’s almost poetry. More so than plot, in fact, it’s the writing, and the shifting, reflective style of narration, that makes this read worthwhile.
The plot is very simple and minimal. It begins when Violet and Charles Gordon, a middle-aged married couple, return from Burma. Charles has made a career out of the teak industry, but a shifting political climate has forced him and his wife to abruptly quit their life there. For an unspecified length of time, they have decided to take up residence at Violet’s family estate in the Irish countryside. The house has been shut up for years, since it ceased being a summer residence for Violet’s family, back when she and her sister were growing up.
Charles, adrift by his sudden and premature retirement, immediately gets to work tidying up the house, inside and out. To him, the house is something odd and neglected, and caring for it can distract him from the aging process. Violet, on the other hand, is almost incapacitated by the childhood memories that lay waiting for her in every inch of the house:
He did not constantly bump into the past, or edge away from memories which threatened or demanded. He did not have to catch his breath as he opened a door, or pause lost in thought on the landing as the blue mountains showed themselves on a fine day. He was not the center as she was of a fine but tightly drawn web of faces and feelings, and Violet sometimes felt she was living several lives at once. In her dreams they interwove themselves so she often woke confused, wondering who she was, surprised to find Charles beside her, surprised not to be woken by Miss Goddard’s crisp, “Time to get up, lazybones!”
Above all, Violet is haunted by the memories of her final summers in the house with her younger sister, back when they were teenagers. Violet, as a renowned beauty, has always felt guilty for the attention she has unintentionally taken away from her sister, who would become moody and act out to garner some attention for herself. In those final summers, this culminated in her sister being in love with a boy who ended up preferring Violet. Not long after, the sister did meet another young man, and she married this man and moved to America. The two sisters haven’t seen each other since. For Violet, though, the guilt of hurting her sister has never healed, the pain sharper now that she’s returned to the scene of the drama.
Charles and Violet haven’t been back in the house long before they receive a letter from Violet’s sister. Apparently, the sister’s daughter Sally has formed an attachment to a young man, an aspiring actor. Sally is quite serious about the young man, but her parents are pretty sure the young man has no intention of marrying her. They propose a summer in Ireland as a means of breaking off the attachment.
Violet feels she has no choice but to accept the “foreign invasion,” as she and her husband refer to it. When Sally shows up, at only 20 years old, it’s clear she’s still pretty childish. She resists forming any connection with Charles and Violet, as a means of protesting her forced exile to Ireland. While doing her best to make the worst of things, she calls the house ugly. Violet is deeply hurt.
For even though the point of view shifts between each character in turn, lingering longer on Violet and Sally’s perspectives, the real “protagonist” of this story is actually the house itself. In despondent moods much like her mother suffered at the same age, Sally has a tendency to ask what the point of “it all” is. To Violet, the answer lies in the house itself. Through the ups and downs and comings and goings of each generation of caretakers, the house always remains. The house is a place of consistency and shelter, a connection to a family lineage that lives on. The point of maintaining the house, therefore, is so that it can go on being these things.
And then there are the relationships between the characters themselves, relationships that are constantly shifting and deepening. For instance, we gradually learn that Charles has a tendency toward extramarital affairs. Violet isn’t dumb to this tendency, and so she notices the warning signs in his interactions with Sally. Violet is more subtly flawed:
But I, she thought, have never accepted myself—perhaps because I have never been loved for myself as an ugly woman may be. I have only been loved for something over which I have no control and did not make. The proof is, she thought bitterly, that now this beauty is going, I am no longer loved in the same way. Even Charles feels the difference. He loves me because of his memory of what I was. But he does not see me as I am now, and he will never guess how terribly afraid I am that he someday will.
This is a reflective novel, with a great deal of emphasis on understanding oneself and one’s relationships with others. For this aspect, it reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West—especially the latter, for The Heir‘s portrayal of a relationship with a house, and All Passion Spent for its reflections on aging. For plot, time period, and depth of characterization, it also reminded me a lot of my beloved Susan Ertz.
I loved Sarton’s recurring metaphor of the reflection, how each person we interact with becomes a mirror in some way. Sarton seems to have a profound understanding of how we are revitalized when people pay attention to us, but solitude and silence can be just as energizing. And in a big old house like the one in this story, silence is in great supply.
I’m not sure if I’ll be seeking out more of Sarton’s fiction. I’m still more in awe of her journals, chiefly because I admire their first person transparency. All the same, A Shower of Summer Days is a meaningful and well-crafted read, definitely worthy of a few summer afternoons.