The Summer House Trilogy was originally published as three separate pieces in 1987, 1988, and 1990. Putting all three together is not just convenient for the reader but a boon for seeing Ellis’s overall picture of her female characters’ friendships, romantic relationships, and independent thinking. Each story is a perspective on the same event: the weeks leading up to the wedding of very young and reserved Margaret to neighbor Syl, who is old enough to be her father. In fact, Syl has known Margaret’s mother Monica and family friend Lili for his entire adult life. The problem is that Margaret clearly does not love Syl and doesn’t want to marry him. Ellis’ writing provides her three narrators with wit, humor, intelligence, spirituality, and profound sadness as they each reflect on their pasts and on the upcoming event.
The three narrators are Margaret, who is about 20; Syl’s mother Mrs. Monro who is probably in her 70s or so; and Lili, who is in her 40s and went to school with Monica. These three women couldn’t be more unlike at first glance. Margaret narrates the first story and from her point of view, we see Mrs. Monro as a severe old battle-ax who dotes on her adult son and will live in the same house with them after the wedding. Lili comes across as a blithe spirit who is in control of her life and her loves, someone that Margaret thinks could understand and advise her. And we learn some very important background history on Margaret: she attended school in Egypt, had an ill-fated love affair, and was very close to the nuns in a Catholic convent there. As her wedding day approaches, Margaret becomes more depressed, drinks a lot, and tells her mother and Lili that she doesn’t want to get married. As far as I can tell, the action takes place in the early 1960s, and Margaret’s mother couldn’t care less how Margaret feels — she’s “a lump” and is going to get married anyway. This story ends with Lili’s wedding gift to Margaret and Syl, which turns out to be absolutely perfect.
Reading about the same events from Mrs. Monro’s viewpoint and then Lili’s is revelatory. Not only do we see that Margaret has not read either woman completely accurately, but we learn that they all have more in common than they might realize. Mrs. Monro sees that Margaret and Syl are a disaster, and it causes her to reflect on her own ill-fated love affair and unsatisfactory marriage. She spends a lot of time drinking, smoking, and talking with Lili, even though she would have good reason to hate Lili and banish her from the grounds. I found myself admiring Mrs. Monro for her intelligence and her compassion. Lili, in her story, reveals that she is not quite as in control of her life as Margaret thinks. Lili seems to dominate and control events but is often drunk and impulsive. She is insecure in her relationship with her husband, for good reason, and sees herself as a bad person but not quite so bad as others. Lili is complicated. By the end of her story, we have a very different way of looking at the gift that she has given Margaret.
Mrs. Monro is sort of the linchpin in the narrative. She and Margaret share some important things in common, and she and Lili do as well. For example, Margaret and Mrs. Monro make similar observations about men and relationships:
Margaret: … I suddenly hated the men who had assured me that in their intentions lay my fulfillment.
Mrs. Monro: Here was the same thing, the unquestioning assumption that in the attention of men lay the fulfillment of women.
While Lili is a great lover of men and attention, neither Margaret nor Mrs. Monro have any desire to be married (or to have been married). Margaret has seen, through the nuns, how women can live happy, fulfilled lives devoted to something greater than themselves. Mrs. Monro, reflecting on her past, opines,
I had always found satisfaction in being self-sufficient. The idea that two separate beings should restrict themselves to certain roles in order to form one whole seemed to me to be structurally unsound.
And later she reveals that on her wedding day, she felt “bilious” but “determined.”
Rather, I supposed, as the troops had felt facing the carnage of the trenches. Warfare was one symptom of the insanity of man, and marriage was another.
Lili and Mrs. Monro, with the wisdom of age, both see the stupidity of the men in their lives, and the need for someone to step in to help Margaret. They both seem to grasp the reality of the situation but Mrs. Monro sees no way to help. She is stunned by an unexpected evil that is brought to her attention, while Lili in her story says,
I knew how bad people lived with themselves. After a while they pretended somebody else had done it — no matter what it was.
Lili is a worldly creature, concerned with attention and money and afraid of “repudiation.” She has lived a different sort of life, raised in Egypt as the daughter of an Egyptian man and English woman, familiar with “eastern” ways and European. She is so unlike Margaret, yet can hide it well. Lili relies on secrets even though she sees the danger of it.
Keeping secrets was as foolish as keeling scorpions under your hat.
In the end I couldn’t help but feel sorry for each woman, restricted as they were by their sex and social norms. And yet they show a kind of resiliency that helps them get through life and occasionally help one another. This would be a fun selection for a book group.