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In a Summer Season (1961)

by Elizabeth Taylor

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4541747,528 (3.92)1 / 112
"You taste of rain," he said, kissing her. "People say I married her for her money," he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.' Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate's old friend Charles - intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most deceptively quiet writers I have ever encountered. You read her books with a sense that you are just peeking in on someone’s life. There is nothing major going on, much of the book is spent eavesdropping over the serving of tea or the setting of dinner placements, but there is a kind of electricity that hovers over everything, a testament that a storm is brewing somewhere and someone should be fastening down any loose items that might blow away.

I want to say that Taylor expends all her energies on character development, but that would imply that there is not a plot, and when you look back from the last pages, you know there always was more action going on than your conscious mind acknowledged. The meat is there, though, in the intricate characters, their subtle imperfections, their silent struggles, their mysterious undercurrents.

There are some very serious topics being explored in these everyday lives. Amid the teacups, we are often treated to the inner souls of these people and their struggle to find meaning in lives that can appear to be too idle.

‘We’re all of us just passing time,’ she thought, feeling irritated by the sound. A lack of purpose was an imperfection Dermot may have introduced. It seemed to her that it was worse for herself, without religion, to be squandering her life, expecting no other and chilled by the passage of time.

When we come into this novel, we are introduced to an upper middle class English family. Kate Heron is a widow, remarried to a younger man, Dermot, who is unemployed and somewhat insecure. Living with them are her children by the first marriage, twenty-two year old Tom, who struggles to please his grandfather, who has him in training to take over the family business; sixteen year old Louisa, who is suffering from her first “love” with the local curate; Kate’s aunt Ethel, who spends most of her time prying into the affairs of the others; and the cook/housekeeper, Mrs. Meacock, who dreams of traveling abroad and writing a book of inspirational sayings. Into this motley crew come the Thorntons, Charles and Araminta, the husband and daughter of Kate’s deceased best friend. These two extra personalities are what serve as the catalyst for all the carefully repressed anxieties to flame in the sweltering summer heat.

What goes on between these individuals is serious, without doubt. Not all of the novel is serious, however, for we have been gifted the marvelous Aunt Ethel, who made me laugh more than once. I had a very vivid image of her, dwarfed by the cello she is constantly carrying up and down the stairs, so that it will not be seen as an intrusion upon the family space, and slipping into rooms where she disappears into the wallpaper. She is constantly whipping off letters, teeming with family secrets, to her friend, Gertrude. They are peppered with other bits of wisdom, the two spinsters share, such as this,

In Mediterranean countries as one knows, the sun brings girls to maturity much earlier—and I have my own theory that the Vitamin E in ripe olives has a stimulating effect on the sexual organs.

Another element that Taylor handles with perfection is the subtle, but very real, differences between the generations, from the naive love-sickness of Lou to the thorny recognition of aging that Kate finds in herself. With Dermot planted right between the young and the old, and unable to easily fit into either group, there is a poignantly heightened awareness of the divide. Each of Taylor’s characters, young or old, is drawn with an authenticity that brings them to life, exposing their inner thoughts, insecurities and dreams with a kind and loving hand. Even the minor characters, such as the curate and Dermot’s mother, are fully-realized and stir sympathies and understanding.

In a Summer Season is a novel about time and timing, about love and loss, about finding the place where you fit or being unable to. There are family tensions and stirrings of recognition that spring from natural sources, the kind of feelings each of us has probably known at one time or the other in the course of our lives. There are fragile hearts, trying not to be damaged and inevitably damaging others, and a sense that life is a series of changes and regardless of our intents or wishes, relationships morph, and grow or die.

Taylor addresses all of this with such a spartan style in which not a word or thought is wasted. It is this very restraint that makes the impact of her writing so effective. My appreciation for her grows with each of her novels I read, and I am looking forward with relish to the next one.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
I’ve now read three of Taylor’s novels and all her short stories and I’m ready to agree with the back-cover blurb from Phillip Hensher that she is “one of the hidden treasures of the English novel.” She has an exquisite facility for having her characters thoughts run in counterpoint to their dialogue; her stories are like helices, the inner world and the outer world intertwining and equally vivid but seldom aligning.

This one is something I especially love: a seasonal story, a sort of Shakespearean chamber piece in which love acts differently on diverse lovers. Kate is almost forty and has recently lost her husband and her best friend. She’s remarried, to an amiable loafer ten years her junior, and lives with him and her adult-sized son and daughter and a spinster sister of her ex-husband. Then the husband and intoxicatingly beautiful daughter of her dead friend come back from abroad and over the course of a hot summer everything becomes subtly clouded and unclear.

Taylor captures the subtlest of changes in prose that is precise, observant, and pure pleasure to read. Every character, from the lackaday curate whom Kate’s daughter loves unrequitedly, to the cook who spends her spare time compiling an “anthology” and dreams of Bermuda, to Kate’s bluff industrialist ex-father in law, has an inner world to which we’re given access. Reading Elizabeth Taylor feels like a special privilege. ( )
  yarb | Jul 12, 2022 |
Not to be confused with the actress. I’d never read her before, but she is often mentioned with one of my favorites, Barbara Pym. Kingsley Amis and Hilary Mantel are very keen on her. So I picked this one up at my used bookstore a few months ago and pulled it down yesterday when I noticed that it was the anniversary of her birth, in 1912.

The blurb on my Virago edition: “Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbors, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles—intelligent, kind and now widowed—with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding Charles’s presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm …”

Well, seeing as how I am myself someone’s attractive, feckless Dermot, I had to see how it turned out. (Spoiler: Not well for Dermot.) It is very good. I swallowed it whole in two sittings, and will seek out the rest of her stuff. ( )
  k6gst | Jul 6, 2019 |
Elizabeth Taylor wrote wrote beautiful, subtle human dramas with such wonderful clarity. The stories that she wrote were wonderfully insightful about people and their relationships; and they reward close reading because she had such a wonderful eye and ear and because she was so very good at making every detail exactly right – and worthy of notice.

This novel – her eighth – is about love. It shows different kinds of love, it shows how love can change; and it shows how love affects one family and the people around them, and how it changes them and their lives, over the course of one summer season.

Kate was a young widow and she has recently married for the second time. Her new husband, Dermot, has tried a number of careers without ever finding the right one. He isn’t particularly driven, but he wants to do something, to play the role that he feels he should be playing.

Kate and Dermot are happy together as a couple.

‘Separated from their everyday life, as if in a dream or on a honeymoon, Kate and Dermot were under the spell of the gentle weather and blossoming countryside. They slept in bedrooms like corners of auction rooms stacked with old fashioned furniture, they made love in hummocky beds, and gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where that sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent on each other.’

Family life though, brings complications

Dermot has a good relationship with Kate’s son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business and having fun with a string of girlfriends; but he struggles with Kate’s daughter, Lou, who is back from boarding school for the holidays and hates that somebody else is taking her father’s place and making her mother the subject of gossip.

Kate is fully aware of Dermot’s weaknesses, but she accepts them, and tells herself that they can be – they will be happy.

But it becomes clear that their marriage has fault lines.

‘On the way home they quarreled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarreling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it.'

Dermot doesn’t share many of the interests and attitudes of Kate and her friends; he feels inferior, he resents that, and he resents that he can’t quite establish himself in the position he wants.

This becomes clear over the course of the summer.

In the first act of this two act drama family life simply plays out. Lou is drawn to the young local curate and she spends her summer caught up with parish affairs and events. Kate’s Aunt Ethel, who lives with the family is caught up with her own concerns, but she is worried about the family and she quietly does what she can for them.

In the second act Kate prepares for the return home of her best friend’s widower Charles and his daughter Araminta. They have been away since his wife died, they have never met Dermot, and Kate worries that the presence of an old friend, with so much shared history and so many common interests will unsettle him.

'They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.'

She is right, and, quite unwittingly, Tom and Araminta, upset the precarious balance of Kate’s family. Tom is fascinated by Araminta, an aspiring model, who is beautiful, cool and distant; the first girl he wants but cannot win. And the return of her own friend unsettles Kate as well as Dermot.

There is little plot here, but the characters and the relationships are so well drawn that it really doesn’t matter.

The minor characters are particularly well drawn. I was particularly taken with Ethel, a former suffragette who wrote gossipy letters to her old friend in Cornwall but also had a practical and unsentimental concern for family; with Dermot’s mother, Edwina, who tried to push her son forward and was inclined to blame Kate for his failings; and with the cook, Mrs Meacock, who experimented with American food and was compiling a book.

They brought a different aspects to the story, as did Lou’s involvement with the curate.

There are so many emotions here, including some wonderful moments of humour that are beautifully mixed into the story.

‘Love was turning Tom hostile to every one person but one. They all affronted him by cluttering up the earth, by impinging on his thoughts, He tried to drive them away from his secret by rudeness and he reminded Ethel of an old goose she had once had who protected her nest with such hissings, such clumsy ferocity, that she claimed the attention of even the unconcerned.’

I believed in these people and their relationships; they all lived and breathed, and Elizabeth Taylor told all of their stories so very well.

The summer is perfectly evoked, and this book is very well rooted in its particular time and place.

I loved the first act of this book, when I read that I thought that this might become my favourite of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, but I loved the second act a little less. It felt just a little bit predictable, a little bit like something I’ve read before and I couldn’t help wondering if the dénouement came from a need to do something to end the story rather than simply being a natural end.

It was love though, and I can explain away all my concerns by telling myself that stories do repeat in different lives and that lives often take unexpected turns, and can be changed by events that are quite unexpected.

I’m glad that I finally picked this book up, and that I have other books by Elizabeth Taylor to read and to re-read. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Aug 22, 2017 |
Delicious. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Taylor, Elizabethprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Clapp, SusannahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, Elisabeth RussellIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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'After all, I am not a young girl to be intimidated by her,' Kate decided, as she waited outside her mother-in-law's house.
'She is a young woman who looks as if she never had to wash her gloves!' (Introduction)
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"You taste of rain," he said, kissing her. "People say I married her for her money," he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.' Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate's old friend Charles - intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .

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' "You taste of rain," he said, kissing her. "People say I married her for her money,"a he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.' Kate Heron is a wealthy charming widow who marries a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. They live in commuter country, an hour from London. Theirs is an unconventional marriage, but a happy one. Their special love arms them against the disapproval of conservative friends and neighbors - until the return of Kate's old friend Charles, intelligent, kind, now widowed with a beautiful daughter. Happily, she watches as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar. But then one night she dreams a strange and sensual dream: a dream that disturbs the calm surface of their friendship - foreshadowing dramas fate holds in store for them all.
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