Saturday, June 28, 2014

"'How nasty,' I said tactfully."

Margaret has agreed to marry Syl; well, not so much agreed, as remained silent when he asked and he's taken it from there. Syl is twice her age -- he's her mother's contemporary -- and it's plainly obvious that Margaret's embarrassed and repulsed by him, but she's paralyzed and desolate and meanwhile the wedding is drawing nearer and nearer. What is going on with Margaret? And who is going to put a stop to this?

The Summer House [by Alice Thomas Ellis; there are a lot of other The Summer Houses out there] is a "trilogy" -- three novels that describe the events leading up to Margaret's wedding day from different perspectives. It seems more correct to call it a "triptych" but that's pretentious and I defer to the publisher. Anyway, the first novel (...novella? I'll stop now) is from Margaret's perspective, the second from Syl's mother's, and the third is in the voice of Lili, a free-spirited half-Egyptian friend of Margaret's mother. I don't know how to describe it -- the books manage to unfold incomplete information in a way that you don't necessarily realize what you don't know; so that, for instance, you think you have found out what has traumatized Margaret... and then you find out a little more which colors your initial understanding... and then you find out more which turns the whole thing on its head. Even just finding out someone's true motivation feels like a sea change. It's dramatic and subdued all at once in a way that feels, somehow, very true to life.

When I got to the last twenty pages I was completely gripped and had to bring the book with me to finish it. The pattern of the three novels is a little counterintuitive: you start with the person most closely involved in the planned wedding and move out to the wedding guest; but then, as you'll see, you are also paradoxically moving from the person who knows least about what's going on to the person who knows the most. There's some dark stuff here, definitely, but I think this makes a good summer read. Plus: it has "summer" in the title and it has those sweet teacups on the cover of my copy.


  1. This looks incredible and not nearly as frivolous as its title seems to suggest. It's going straight to the TBRE list, to be read...eventually.

    I don't care how pretentious it sounds, triptych is a great word.

  2. This sounds amazing! I feel like the title and the teacups do not do justice to the plot you explain.

    And triptych, agreed, is a great word.

    1. Yes, you have to imagine that those are slightly menacing teacups... It's definitely a novel about what's lurking behind the polished middle-class facade, but moreover what we know/don't know/aren't sure about other people, which saves it from being just Evil Suburbs Lit.

  3. That's such a great cover, and I am contractually obligated to like books featuring multiple narrators. So, big yes to this one!