Have 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.