“The Summer House – a Trilogy” by Alice Thomas Ellis

I used to hang out with a group of radical feminists. For years, one of them read only books by and about women. In fact, she only talked about women. If the conversation drifted to a man/men/men’s actions, she remained silent. ALL her energy and attention was directed towards women.

The Summerhouse would have been just the book for my friend. It’s labeled “a trilogy”, but it does not consist of three stories in sequence. It’s the same story told three times, from the viewpoint of three different women of three different ages. Maiden, mother and crone, if you want to get psychological about it.

The Summer House was originally published in 1987, and the setting is a suburb of London, where nineteen year old Margaret is sleepwalking towards her wedding. Her betrothed is the son of a neighbor, and he is more than twice Margaret’s age. Something is seriously wrong with Margaret. (Something is wrong with everyone in this book – goodness, they are human…) At the climax of the book, on the appointed day, the wedding is cancelled. To me, the end of the first book was a very satisfying surprise. This first tale could stand nicely on its own, a short novel.

The next two versions of the story provide two additional perspectives and lots of juicy details.

Okay, it’s about a wedding, right? SO there had to be some men around? Yes, but they are very lightly sketched. Most visible was the intended bridegroom, who is not, apparently, disturbed by the fact that he barely knows Margaret. He assumes that under her very quiet exterior, she burns with passion (for him).

The other two women whose voices we hear are the bridegroom’s aged and unhappy mother (Mrs. Monro), and a friend of Margaret’s mother (Lili) who shows up for the wedding, having lived overseas most of her life. Lili is disruptive, unconventional and opportunistic, sort of a modern Sally Bowles. She recognizes that the impending marriage is wrong (doomed, damaging…) and throws a wrench into the works.

I can imagine this book being avidly discussed by book discussion groups (a mostly female activity by my observation)! For starters, who identifies with which narrator? Many moral issues are raised, sometimes by the behavior of men. Who was guilty, and of what? Who felt guilty?

I’m profoundly glad the publisher did not add “discussion questions” to the book! This is an unwelcome, recent intrusion (that I have encountered several times recently) and I hope it does not catch on.

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