Back to Book Blogging: Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Summer House

"Reading in the Garden," by Susan Ricker Knox

“Reading in the Garden,” by
Susan Ricker Knox

It is a gorgeous spring day.

And so I am writing outside.

I went for a long walk…had two cups of coffee…am  delighted to hear the birds sing…discovered that no one at the Free Little Library wants the books I’ve donated, a Dover edition of Edith Wharton’s short stories and an excellent “Darkover” book by Marion Zimmer Bradley….. and I found it is too puddly to take a bike ride.

With the warm spring day, I have renewed enthusiasm for book blogging:  those who come here strictly for the book chat will be gratified.  You may have wondered, What the f— , as I rambled about travel, the humanities, and other non-bookish topics.

But now I’m back.

Summer Houe Alice Thomas EllisI can’t decide if ALICE THOMAS ELLIS’S’S gorgeous trilogy,  THE SUMMER HOUSE, is quite a classic, but it is very good indeed.  Ellis, a Catholic writer, has the relentless intelligence of Flannery O’Connor:  there is zero sentimentality in these bold, dazzling comedies of  sin, sacrifice, and redemption.

In each of three very short  novels, the same events before a wedding are observed by three different women (who form a kind of unholy female trinity).  In The Clothes in the Wardrobe, we meet the bride, Margaret, a passive young woman who has been stupefied into agreeing to marry Syl, a middle-aged Englishman, after a love affair in Egypt with a young man who commits a murder.   In The Skeleton in the Cupboard, Mrs. Monroe, Syl’s mother, has doubts about the impending wedding as Margaret’s lack of enthusiasm for her son becomes apparent.  And in The Fly in the Ointment, Lili, the Egyptian femme fatale at the center of the action, is admired, loved, and sometimes feared.  Lili, who identifies with Lilith, the mythic first wife of Adam in the Bible, is determined to help Margaret (and herself) by doing whatever it takes.

Ellis’s prose is wickedly superb as she sketches the portents against the wedding in brief, powerful sentences.  The wedding dress doesn’t fit; Syl embarrasses Margaret and her friends;  and her mother decides for her and Syl to cancel the honeymoon in Egypt because she thinks Margaret is ill.

Every observant phrase and word of dialogue fits Ellis’s spare prose as smoothly as Margaret’s wedding dress does not.

“It doesn’t fit,” I said with satisfaction.

My mother couldn’t deny it.  The wedding dress hung loosely on me and I appeared to myself, reflected in the cheval mirror, gratifying ridiculous.

“It looks silly,” I said more positively.

My mother irritatedly seized two handfuls of old brocade and dragged them behind my back.

“You’ve lost weight,” she observed in a tone which indicated she could have expected nothing else of me.  “It’ll have to be taken in at the seams.”

Already the tiny triumph had withered in me.  I thought the dead whiteness of the dress made me more of a corpse than a bride but hadn’t enough energy to infuriate my mother by telling her.

In the second book, the elderly Mrs. Monroe looks forward to Syl’s leaving home.  At the same time, she knows Margaret is even less suitable than Syl’s last fiancée.  And she dislikes Lili strongly, because she caught her late husband long ago having sex with Lili in the summer house.

There was nothing too terrible about my life, no need to turn away from it or pretend it was other than it was.  The truth is I was bored.  I had not been bred to suburbia.

And in the third book, we are both shocked and fascinated by Lili’s schemes.

I seemed to leave my body as a ginnee leaves a bottle and floats above all the people, invulnerable, omnipotent and–not to be trusted.  Everybody knows that the jann can’t be trusted.  They share with man the promise of salvation but they go round at night doing bad things.

summer-house-movie-poster-1994-1010265552There is a kind of unholy female trinity, mother, daughter, and jinn.

It was a real pleasure to read this:  Alice Thomas Ellis is one of my favorite writers.

And there is a very good movie version of The Summer House, starring Jeanne Moreau, Joan Plowright, and Julie Walters.

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