It’s Getting Hot: Edith Wharton’s Summer

summerHave you read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome? Well, in many ways, Summer is its companion—only opposite. Remember the desolate winter landscapes in Ethan Frome? In Summer, you will find sweltering summer days. And instead of the focus being on a man, Summer describes the coming-of-age of a young woman, Charity Royall. But both novellas deal with limitations, expectations, and missed opportunities. While Summer was missing the biting wit I so love in The Age of Innocence, my regard for Wharton as a writer has only grown over the past week. She was able to completely enthrall me with her story of people and a town that at first glance seem rather ordinary.

North Dormer is a small New England town with limited opportunities. Most people who are able to leave do so without a second thought. Close to the town is the Mountain, home to a small, poor community of criminals and alcoholics. Charity Royall was born on the Mountain, but shortly after her birth, Mr. Royall and his wife adopt her, so she grows up in relative comfort. Charity is stubborn and willful, which complicates her relationship with Mr. Royall after his wife dies and she reaches womanhood. But she also has an earnest desire to leave North Dormer and better herself, though she cannot quite picture what her future might look like.

Her dreams become clearer once Lucius Harney arrives in town. He is young, handsome, and charming—unlike any other man around. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Mr. Royall. It is no surprise that Charity is quickly smitten. Her summer has suddenly become filled with excitement, opportunity, and passion. While Charity realizes and is intimidated by how little she has to offer Harney, her self-doubt quickly vanishes whenever she is alone with him. She has no trouble dismissing Mr. Royall’s warnings. With the possibility of a better future, Charity stops paying much attention to how things might appear in the present.

But of course time never stops and so summer does eventually end. Harney has to return to town, and Charity is left to deal with the fallout of her summer romance. She is forced to finally acknowledge who she is and how she fits into her town’s social structure.

In Summer, Wharton has created rich and complex characters who have to deal with the restrictions of their time. The ending was in many ways inevitable. It was what I expected, but not what I was hoping for. Yet it worked, and since I saw hope at the end, I didn’t feel completely wrung out when I finished reading—which was unlike my reaction to Ethan Frome.

I read this book as part of Brona’s Wharton Review.

 

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16 comments

  1. I need to read this! Thanks for this great review. I’ve read and enjoyed Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence, but I’d never heard about Summer!

  2. Thanks for reminding me that I have this on my piles. I didn’t like Ethan Frome – or rather – didn’t enjoy it. It’s great of course, but I think I’ll like this more.

  3. Edith Wharton is one of those writers who never disappoints. I love Ethan Frome; it’s one of my favourite winter reads, one I know I’ll return to again and again. Summer is on one of my wishlists for the future – the characterisation and themes sound wonderful.

    • It was funny that even though I wasn’t expecting a happy story, I was hoping for one, but then was not disappointed when I didn’t get it. Wharton is definitely one of my Top 5 authors.

  4. I still haven’t read anything by Wharton, but Ethan Frome is in my tbr pile. I only ever hear good things about her. The Age of Innocence is your favourite, but which do you prefer between Summer and EF?

  5. The only one I’ve read is Ethan Frome, and I thought it was brilliantly written. For my own taste it was too bleak though – I prefer a bit of light and hope to break up the darkness. So I’m glad you felt Summer didn’t end quite so hopelessly. I’m planning to read The Age of Innocence sometimes soon… 🙂

  6. I loved this book. It was so unexpectedly dirty! It gave me a whole knew notion of Wharton, that’s for sure. I hadn’t read any of her books in many years, and this is not what I remembered!

    • I agree, this is very different from the repressive atmosphere in some of her other novels. Though frankly, I didn’t like this one as much as The Age of Innocence. (But then that’s my all-time favorite….)

  7. What an excellent review. I read this book last summer, struggled with reviewing it and ended up not. I find both this book and Ethan Frome leave the reader with a feeling of discomfort. Neither are what I imagine about a small town, but perhaps Wharton wanted to emphasis the turmoil that can happen when someone steps outside the traditional norms of a small town culture. And being Wharton, she does it very well. I can’t wait to read more of her works.

    • I grew up in a small town and know how much people love to gossip. I can only imagine how stifling it must have been when women especially weren’t allowed to do much of anything. What I really admired about this book was that I understood all of the characters, even though I should have disliked them based on some of their actions.

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