Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review - Two Lives by William Trevor

Every time the great Irish writer, William Trevor publishes something new, critics everywhere say it's the greatest thing he's ever written. And it is. Until he writes something else, that is.

Two Lives, however, has won a special place in my heart, and while I love everything Trevor writes, I doubt that anything will ever top Two Lives for me.

Two Lives is composed of two elegant and elegiac novels, each centering on a fiftysomething woman, and each taking place during the summer of 1987.

At first glance, the lives of Mary Louise Quarry and Emily Delahunty couldn't seem more different. Mary Louise, an Irish farm girl and the heroine of "Reading Turgenev" has lived in a home for the mentally and emotionally disturbed and impaired for the past thirty-one years. Repressed and emotionally fragile, the only experience Mary Louise has ever had of love, despite an early and ongoing marriage, revolves around her dying cousin, Robert, who lived with his mother in a crumbling Irish country house and who shares his love of Turgenev with Mary Louise.

While Mary Louise's life constantly turns inward, Emily Delahunty, the outgoing romance novelist who takes center stage in "My House in Umbria," looks to others for emotional sustenance. The abandoned daughter of carnival performers, Emily's always made her own way in the world, and unlike Mary Louise, she's had a great deal more experience of love than most. At least the "business" side of love, and it's this business side that's paid for her charming villa in the Umbrian countryside not far from Siena.

When we first met both Mary Louise and Emily, each woman is dealing with a traumatic event that has, at least temporarily, turned her world upside down. Trevor tells us each woman's story as he moves from the present to the past and back to the present once again. Little by little, we learn how these two women, who've lived such extraordinarily different lives on the outside are, at their core, so very, very similar. Each woman constructs her life around fantasy, and though Emily Delahunty may, at first, seem the stronger of the two, as we read on, we learn this isn't necessarily true. Mary Louise's inner resources might not be so much in evidence, but there's no doubt they run deep. In the end, a perceptive reader can reach no easy conclusions about either woman or the people with whom she shares her life and interacts. The line betwen reality and fantasy is deliberately blurred. But that's William Trevor. In the master writer's hands, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is easy, and nothing is quite as it seems.

Although there are mirrors and echoes of each novella in the other, Trevor has said he didn't set out for this to be so. He didn't plan a book containing two novellas, each revolving around a woman who needs to construct a fantasy life in order to survive. Instead, Trevor tells us "one tends to write out of an obsession and the obsession didn't end when I finished the first one."

The "first one" was "My House in Umbria," the story of Emily Delahunty, though most readers consider "Reading Turgenev" the superior novella. Certainly the Booker committee did when they shortlisted it for the prize in 1991.

Both "Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria" are gorgeously wrought novels. Each is infused with Trevor's trademark melancholy, bleakness, insight, subtle wit, and above all, his tremendous compassion for the entire human race.

Once again, William Trevor has shown us there's no finer author writing in the English language today.


Recommended: Most enthusiastically. Along with Felicia's Journey, this is Trevor's finest work in a lifetime of fine works.


Irma said...

You are right. This is a great book. I love it. I can not decide which one of the two novels is better. Probably Reading Turgenev but My House in Umbria touched me deeply,too. I feel sorry for little Aimee and I can not forget wickedness of Mary Louise's sisters in low.

Literary Corner Cafe said...

Mary Louise's sisters-in-law were a wicked twosome, Irma, but one thing that really stands out for me is Trevor's compassion when portraying them. That is a Trevor trademark - compassion for his characters.