Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

My friend Bob recommended this novel to me 20-some years ago, and I started it, but abandoned it after the first chapter. I couldn’t stand the stilted, pretentious language, and I am always suspicious of books that print the author's name in a font two or three times larger than the title. This may be the first book to which I applied the “rule of 50,” but I noticed the title mentioned in several recent essays I have read, so I decided to have another go at it.

At first I was still annoyed by all the “shalls,” “nonces,” “one’s habits,” and other such archaisms, but I kept going anyway. It was pouring rain -- a perfect day for reading.

Taylor’s novel is an “onion” book – layers are slowly revealed by the narrator between the time he receives his summons and his arrival in Memphis the next morning. Phil Carver’s father is about to remarry at the ripe age of 81, and his sisters are determined to torpedo the match and preserve the family fortune. Ah! The old South.

As I approached the climax, a thought occurred to me – this is a kind of retelling of King Lear from the viewpoint of the loyal child, Cordelia. The old man is also going blind, and…wait, I have already said too much.

Not a great book, despite the Pulitzer Prize, but worth a rainy afternoon or two. A mild surprise at the end awaits the persistent reader. If you have ever had a childhood grudge against your parents, maybe this is a book you should read. Four stars.

--Chiron, 3/18/08

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