By Michael Garvey
Four times has William Trevor been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, the last being for The Story of Lucy Gault in 2002. His new novel Love and Summer has recently been longlisted, but is this new offering enough to break Trevor free of his authorial version of the ‘always a bridesmaid, never the bride’ syndrome?
A funeral welcomes us into the sleepy rural town of Rathmoye. Mrs Connulty has died. A prominent woman in society who married into a family that people said “owned half of Rathmoye.” Florian Kilderry, a stranger in town, is headed to the Connultys’ burnt down cinema when he happens across her funeral. His curiosity leads him to photograph the event, an act that doesn’t go unnoticed and ruffles the feathers of some townspeople, not least Mrs Connulty’s own daughter, Miss Connulty, when she finds out.
Ellie Dillahan is one of those to notice the photographer, but does so without pique. An orphan raised by nuns in Cloonhill, Ellie came to Rathmoye for a post as housekeeper to Mr Dillahan and ended up his wife in a marriage founded not on love or land but on kindness and politeness. Never having felt real love, Ellie, too, is curious about the half-Italian Florian and when chance brings them together again, a romance sparks, a romance that’s all too familiar to Miss Connulty and she seeks to protect Ellie from the dark fate that befell her all those years ago. What follows is a love story but is Miss Connulty justified in thinking history is repeating itself?
The plot, though compelling, is not without holes – one wonders how Florian, who lives in a large house within cycling distance of Rathmoye, is a complete stranger to the inhabitants of the town – and the romance that flourishes between Florian and Ellie seems implausible and is poorly developed. With scant reason – mere sightings and a brief conversation – Ellie asserts she is in love with Florian. The only possible justification for such a dramatic and sudden advancement is that Ellie projects onto Florian all her childhood fantasies of what love should be (half-Italian, it seems), though there is no intimation of this in a text that otherwise leaves so little to the imagination.
More impressive is the complex rapport between Ellie and her damaged husband; their marriage that never quite moved beyond their former relationship as housekeeper and master, a marriage cast in shadow by Mr Dillahan’s tragic accident that caused the death of his former wife and child. Miss Connulty, too, is an intriguing presence in the novel from the beginning, when we see her coolly examining her mother’s jewellery, recalling her mother’s cruelty and dislike of her, and she wins our favour and sympathy later when she shares some hard-won wisdom with Ellie.
A gentle, entertaining novel, but not, I think, likely to win Trevor his ever-elusive Booker.