Summer by Edith Wharton

Charity Royall lives in the tiny New England village of North Dormer with her guardian, the temperamental Lawyer Royall. Lawyer is his occupation, not his name which I don't think we are ever given. He became her guardian when he "brought her down from the mountain" where she lived among poverty stricken people, taking her away from her mother who was more than willing to have one less mouth to feed. Mrs. Royall died when Charity was about 15 years old, leaving Mr. Royall and Charity to rattle around in the emptiness of their lonely house.

At seventeen, Charity is discontented with her sleepy small town life, especially after her guardian makes it clear he would like to be something more than guardian to her. When the town librarian dies, she applies for the part-time job, hoping for both distraction and a little money of her own. One summer day an attractive young man, Mr. Harney, comes in to find a book and Charity's life suddenly becomes more exciting.

They spend a lot of time together that summer, Charity driving him about the neighbourhood in Mr. Royall's buggy so he can sketch local architecture. For the first time, Charity is happy. She loves both the attention Mr. Harney pays her and the freedom of doing what she pleases, unchaperoned and unchallenged. Eventually though, the fairytale ends and Mr. Harney must return to his job in New York.

When Charity makes the shattering discovery that her lover has been engaged to someone else the entire time, she is already carrying his child. The options open to her are few and none of them attractive. She could go back to the mountain and raise her child in conditions more horrible than she had ever imagined, she could try to suppress the "grave surprise of motherhood" that already has her experiencing the protective maternal instinct and have her child aborted, or she could marry Mr. Royall and face a loveless lifetime of marriage. I won't spoil it by telling you the rest.

I enjoy Edith Wharton's writing; there's an atmosphere of resignation in her stories that I find appealingly realistic. In "Summer" Charity sets the tone early in the first chapter when she sighs: "How I hate everything!" Even when she falls in love and is feeling intensely happy, the reader senses that such happiness can't last. When she loses it, it feels inevitable.

A couple of passages I particularly liked:

"Such had been the sole link between North Dormer and literature, a link piously commemorated by the erection of the monument where Charity Royall, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sat at her desk under a freckled steel engraving of the deceased authour, and wondered if he felt any deader in his grave than she did in his library.

"...their past was now rich enough to have given them a private language."

Good writing, a great sense of place and realistic characters give me lots of reason to recommend this one - at least to anyone who doesn't absolutely have to have a happy ending.


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