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A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

A Summons to Memphis (1986)

by Peter Taylor

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A very strange thing happened while reading this book. I took it on a trip to New York, and upon returning home, I forgot about it completely and started reading something else. A few weeks later, I started thinking about Stone Mountain (Georgia) and recalling a scene set there that I had read in a novel. It took me a few seconds to remember which book. Once I did, I struggled to try to remember how the book ended. I even checked LibraryThing to see if I had written a review, which I do for every book I finish. There was none. I found the book in one of my several computer bags and started reading where I left off. Despite the passage of time, the story was still quite clear in my head. Perhaps this is the difference between a work of "serious fiction" and the types of novel I usually read. In those novels, mostly mysteries, there are events galore, but they tend to run together and be forgotten. They are contrived to create a puzzle that can be solved. Real life isn't like that, and neither is A Summons to Memphis.

The story moves slowly-at least the part taking place in the present. A son, Philip Carver, living in New York as a collector and seller of antiquarian books, is called back to Memphis by his two older, spinster sisters who are trying to prevent their 81-year old father from remarrying. But neither that trip nor subsequent ones goes as planned. The novel defies your expectations about plot, and you realize it is a book, like so many great Southern novels, about history and family and place-all magnified and distorted through the son's resentment of his father for uprooting the family from Nashville to Memphis, then later stopping his plans to marry the girl he met on Stone Mountain. As the son's relationship with his father evolves through the present-day scenes in the novel, the real story of forgetting and forgiving that is the book's center is told.

If a great book requires great events or a cast of thousands, this is not a great book. But if a great book is judged on its telling details about a small number of characters, details that ring true even if those fictional lives are far from our own, then perhaps A Summons to Memphis is a great book. It is these small details that linger with us, such as Philip Carver's dismissal of his friend Alex Mercer's idea near the end of the book, or of Alex's own close relationship with Philip's father, begun in childhood, but extending through the years when Philip was living in New York. So many great books hinge on the honest portrayal of the relationship between and among family and friends. In this quiet, reflective novel, Peter Taylor has shone a light into the lives, pent-up frustrations, and (I think) the ultimate failure of this family to ever honestly come to grips with its feelings about one another. Each has lived his or her life in a way to send messages to the others about their feelings and resentments but has never managed to speak about them openly. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and only the portion of happiness they have allowed themselves to have.

As I wrote this review and reflected more on what lingered and what it all meant, I added a half star to my LibraryThing review (making it 4 ½ stars). This is a book that demands the reader give it a little more thought and consideration than it at first appears to require. I suspect its implications will continue to linger with me. ( )
1 vote datrappert | Jan 29, 2018 |
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 "A Summon to Memphis" is the story of an upper-class family from Tennessee. As the novel begins, Phillip Carver a 40-something successful business man living in Manhattan gets a phone call from his two hysterical sisters begging him to come home because their 81 year old father is about to re-marry. From that point the story drops back in time as Phillip recalls past events of childhood and the circumstances that lead up to this family crisis.

The Carver children were raised during an era when appearances, manners, etiquette, and social status where paramount. And more likely than not, an authoritative father was common in most families, but Mr. Carver certainly excelled in this department. He was from one of the old, elite Nashville clans, was a successful lawyer, handsome, charismatic, distinguished, and sophisticated - in other words very charming, very persuasive and accustomed to getting his way. Unfortunately, you never know what Mr. Carver was thinking because Phillip is telling the story - and his opinions are biased. He spent his entire live intimidated by his dad, and running away to New York was his way of being set free of his fathers domination.

Phillip’s sisters Jo and Betsy chose to remain in Tennessee under their father’s watchful discriminant eye and catered to his every wish their entire lives, but now things are about to change and they are furious. How dare Mr. Carver make plans to start a whole new life with another woman when Jo and Betsy have sacrificed everything to dedicate their lives to him.

Peter Taylor is a very good storyteller. Through Phillip’s eyes, and rambling stream of conscious, the details unfold. You are never quite sure you are getting the entire story. You just know that many of the father’s decisions seemed unreasonable to the kids when they were young. And now - Phillip is relying on his vindictive sisters to report the news from Tennessee. He ponders - which side should he take?... should he go back home and help his sisters force some sense into dear old dad - or support his dad’s decision to remarry?

It’s an intriguing tale because even though some of the dad’s decisions seem downright mean and cold-hearted, it’s also a fact that most parents make some mistakes in raising their children. And it’s interesting how some children can grow up and move past that - go on with their lives and be happy and successful, while other children get stuck in a rut stewing about past grievances and blame the parents for everything... for the rest of their lives.

Some critics complain that the plot is boring. "A Summons to Memphis" is more about character analysis than action and adventure. While Phillip relates his tale he occasionally repeats himself - goes back over events, mulls over his feelings - recalls missed details, all in a very thoughtful realistic way - as he determines what action he will take, and you somehow get the feeling that after his story is told, he still continues to reassure himself that in the end - he did do right thing. Didn’t he? ( )
2 vote LadyLo | Mar 5, 2017 |
So much is conveyed in a very short novel. The narration is interesting with the story moving back and forth in time. Sometimes the reader participates in the narrator's growing self-awareness. In order to accomplish this, elements of the story seem repetitive as Philip anticipates, goes through and then goes over events in his mind. The author brings the time and place to life (Nashville/Memphis in the 1930's - 60s) and it is possible to sympathize with all of the characters and appreciate them in this place and beyond. ( )
1 vote Laura1124 | Aug 2, 2016 |
Southern family — all mixed up Nashville - Memphis - really no reasons — just there

During the twilight of a Sunday afternoon in March, New York book editor Phillip Carver receives an urgent phone call from each of his older, unmarried sisters. They plead with Phillip to help avert their widower father's impending remarriage to a younger woman. Hesitant to get embroiled in a family drama, he reluctantly agrees to go back south, only to discover the true motivation behind his sisters' concern. While there, Phillip is forced to confront his domineering siblings, a controlling patriarch, and flood of memories from this troubled past.
1 vote christinejoseph | Jun 29, 2016 |

Philip Carver has escaped his controlling father and now lives in New York with his much younger Jewish girlfriend. But when he gets a surprise phone call from his older sister, followed only minutes later by a call from his second sister, and then from an old family friend, he knows he has been summoned to Memphis to help deal with the “disaster.” A mere two years after his mother’s death, his 80-something father has plans to remarry and his adult children have no intention of letting him do so.

George Carver has always been the head of his family, and while he was gentlemanly and generous with his children he also thwarted any potential romantic relationship they might have. It began when he moves his family to Memphis from Nashville after he has been financially ruined and socially humiliated by a long-term friend and colleague. He ensures that his sons and daughters also break off all ties with Nashville. In Memphis, the family seems to find the new start they needed. They are members of the best country club, the girls join the Junior League, they live in a lovely home – they are just like any other wealthy and well-born Memphis family.

The children love and respect their father, but they rebel in quiet ways to distance themselves and find independence. Now, some thirty years after their move, the middle-aged sisters will get their revenge by controlling their widower father, and prohibiting any kind of romance in his life as he once ended their own hopes of romance.

Taylor gives us a work that explores the complex relationships within one family – the wrongs done to one another, resentment built over decades, petty reprisals, and subtle revenge. I usually enjoy character-based novels. I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Paul Harding’s Tinkers, and this work reminds me of those. But this is a very slow read, and I’m struggling with what to write because I’m not really sure how to react to these characters. The last twenty or so pages are poignant and lovely, and I finally felt some connection to Philip and his father and sisters.
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
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For Eleanor, Katie and Ross
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The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved - especially when they are unmarried daughters.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375701176, Paperback)

Peter Taylor is well-known as a masterful writer of short stories set in the old South; not the well-explored South of explosive passions, but an urban world of faded gentility and empty custom. In his almost Jamesian evocations of the mannered upper classes in his native Tennessee, he neither romanticizes nor reviles, but meticulously observes, revealing the patterns of social behavior that leave the individual at the mercy of a relentless past. In this, only the second novel of his long career and the winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Taylor weaves a rich social web in telling the story of one family's stark social decline, symbolized by a move from Nashville to Memphis, and of the consequences through the years and down the generations.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:32 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

When Phillip Carver is asked by his sisters to help avert their widower father's impending marriage to a younger women, he is forced to confront his domineering siblings, a controlling patriarch, and a flood of memories from his deeply troubled past.

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