Time for the review of “In A Summer Season”, and if you haven’t yet finished the book, there will be SPOILERS! so look away now.

“In a Summer Season” takes place over one summer in the life of Kate Heron and her family and friends. Kate is a ‘middle aged’ woman, by which we place her in her forties, married to a second husband, Dermot, who is some years her junior. Kate has two grown up children, Tom and Louise, and the household is made up of a maiden aunt, Ethel, plus cook Mrs. Meacock. Kate and Dermot’s marriage is looked upon askance by most of the locals who were friends of Kate and her late husband Alan, and the extended family (including Dermot’s mother Edwina). Then there are Charles Thornton and his wife Araminta who only join the book fully in the second section, entitled “The Return of the Thorntons”. Add to this the peripheral characters of Fr. Blizzard and Vicar, Kate’s father-in-law (from her first marriage) Sir Alfred, Ethel’s friend Gertrude, a gaggle of local ladies doing good works for the church and even Kate’s London hairdresser, and you have the usual finely-drawn set of characters you can expect from an Elizabeth Taylor novel. There are also the absent ones – the late Alan, and Dorothea, who was Kate’s best friend and Charles’s wife. From the very start of the book, we get the sense of loss that Kate feels having lost Dorothea. We never learn how Alan and Dorothea died, but they are a constant presence in the existence of those who have carried on living.

The first section of the book starts at the beginning of the summer, with Kate visiting her mother-in-law Edwina. From the discussions between them it does not take long to establish Dermot’s character and as the book progresses it is clear that the marriage is a troubled one. Although Kate and Dermot clearly love each other and have a good sexual relationship, there is no great depth portrayed. Their interests are different (as Taylor shows well in several scenes) and their mutual attraction is not enough to build a marriage on. Meanwhile, Kate’s children struggle with their own issues – Lou, with her passion for the curate Father Blizzard (what a wonderful name!) and Tom with his humiliating employment in the lower rungs of his grandfather’s firm. Meanwhile, Mrs. Meacock the cook, who is a wonderfully rounded character in her own right, wrestles with menopausal symptoms and produces a quaint array of American style dishes for the family

Everything is turned upside down, however, by the return of the Thorntons. Araminta has grown up into a very strange young woman, sexually attractive to Tom, Dermot and seemingly every other man she meets. Charles is safe and ordinary and much as Kate had remembered him. It is obvious that he has much more in common with Kate than Dermot and their conversation instantly becomes exclusive, covering interests they share and people they know, cutting Dermot out of the loop. Tom pursues Araminta who is so detached it’s quite ridiculous and she also meets up with Dermot on her return from her days in London modelling.

Kate and Dermot’s relationship begins to unravel and as I neared the end of the book I did wonder how Taylor was going to wrap it up. The resolution is a dramatic one, and in choosing to kill off her two most sexually motivated characters, Taylor may be meting out some kind of divine retribution for their fickleness and disloyalty.

This is a rich and complex novel which can hardly be done justice in a short review, and I think it’s possibly the Elizabeth Taylor book I’ve enjoyed the most so far. Her portrayal of the characters and scenes is masterly, and they’re so well drawn they become real. The dinner party scene, with its shifting viewpoints, is a positive joy. In contrast to some of her novels, which I feel have had a central, dominant female character with the rest of the lesser ones orbiting her, this book was much more rounded. All of the main players had fully developed characters and existed in their own right.

The novel is also an interesting jump into the current world, in contrast to “Angel” which came before it. Televisions, teddy boy haircuts, sports cars and the trappings of modern life are creeping into the book. Taylor contrasts the attitudes of the older generation, still stuck in their rigid way of life, with the younger characters who are starting to kick against this. If “Angel” was set in the no-man’s-land of the historical novel, “IASS” starts to confront the changes that were happening in society at the time Taylor was writing. I rate this book very highly and I’d be interested to hear what other readers think.

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