Monday, August 30, 2010

A Summons to Memphis

What a delight to read! This Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Peter Taylor tells a story without any linguistic pyrotechnics or artificial "layering," but with the economy of a writer who made his reputation with short stories.

There are many layers, though, as the narrator, Philip Carver, casts back into the family history that culminates in a crisis when his widower father contemplates marriage to a younger woman and his spinster sisters connive to block it.

It is for the daughters a type of revenge, for their father at a critical point in time intervened to spoil marriages for both of them, as he did for his son. The arc of the novel is how the son, the only one to leave the family's Tennessee home to make a career in New York, comes to terms with his father's decision first to transplant the family from Nashville to Memphis, traumatizing all three children, and second to secretly visit the family of his son's girlfriend in Chattanooga to discourage any marriage.

The answer ultimately is that he does not come to terms with it. He speaks of forgiving and forgetting, but he remains emotionally damaged, living in a comfortable relationship with an equally damaged woman that has the narrowest of parameters and stifles any true happiness.

The daughters, who apparently are even less aware of the permanent damage to their emotional lives, succeed in taking their father captive and preventing his remarriage, safeguarding their inheritance but more importantly securing their revenge. But they have even less satisfaction from it than their brother.

The narrator skillfully portrays the father-worship of his three children, which neither the father's own tragedy of being duped by a close friend nor his selfish interference in the lives of his children can diminish. But the damage is plain to see in that none of his children then ever marry or have children.

So it is a story about fathers and daughters, and about fathers and sons, and the problems resulting from a dominating personality who is also narcissistic. There is something for virtually every reader to relate to. It is not uplifting because the narrator's disillusionment and disappointment end in resignation. By the end of the novel, it is the father -- despite the betrayal by his friend and the successful efforts of his children to block his marriage -- who triumphs. He is indomitable. But he dies and leaves a legacy of pain.

Taylor's lucid prose deftly unfolds the layers of emotion and history in this profoundly dysfunctional family. While the narrator retains the reader's sympathy, it is clear by the end of the book that he is not the best judge of what has happened.

It is a quick read, just over 200 pages. The depictions of Memphis and Nashville are entertaining -- I picked this up from my shelf because of our recent trip through Tennessee -- but they are less important than the universal emotions of the family relationships.

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