My reading is much like a pendulum swinging back and forth between genres, specific country settings, authors and especially particular eras. I tend to be pretty firmly settled in the interwar period, however, with brief forays here and there elsewhere. The pendulum is beginning to swing now to World War II after quite a while concentrating on the First World War. No doubt that's in part thanks to Kate O'Brien's quietly elegant The Last of Summer, set in Ireland in the days leading up to England's entry into WWII.
Perhaps Kate O'Brien is read more than I think, though I don't often see mentions of her books online. She wrote nine novels and a number of plays, and happily a small handful of them are still in print and readily available. I'm not quite sure what made me add The Last of Summer to my list of books to read this year (first one to cross off the list by the way). Maybe it was the promise of "a perfectly structured psychological love story", and the desire to read something set in Ireland. Whatever the impetus, I'm quite pleased to have rediscovered Kate O'Brien. I read Mary Lavelle in my pre-blogging days, too long ago to recall it clearly, but I obviously had a good experience or I wouldn't have continued collecting her work. It's just taken me a while to get back to her, but I'm glad I did, however random this choice was for inclusion on my list. O'Brien's strength as a writer, aside from her clear, crisp prose is the insight into the characters she writes about, which she does very adroitly.
The story takes place over the course of only one week. Into the ordered lives of the Kernahan family steps Angèle Maury, the French cousin none of them knew about. Angèle is an actress touring Ireland with friends when she decides to set off on her own path and visit the place of her father's birth. Tom Kernahan left Waterpark House many years ago and married a French actress of the Comédie Française. There's a mystery surrounding his departure, a broken heart and failed relationship, and after his somewhat scandalous marriage to an actress he was not mentioned again.
Uncertain of the reception she'll receive Angèle finds her aunt Hannah a most gracious hostess and it's a full house at which she arrives. But while on the surface all is pristine and calm, emotions are going to be stirred and personalities upset only to be further unsettled by week's end. Even though Ireland will remain a neutral country nearly everyone will be affected by the call to war in one way or another.
Angèle falls in comfortably well with her cousins, she being much the same age and temperament as the three; Tom, Martin and Jo. Tom, as the eldest son, has had to take over the running of Waterpark after the early death of his father. Both Martin and Jo continued their studies abroad while Tom returned to responsibilities that take up much of his time leaving little left over for relationships of a romantic nature. He has a close relationship with his mother, and she dotes on him, perhaps too much so, though it's not had an ill effect on his character. If anything he is more loyal and responsible to his family. Martin has plans to return to Paris and his studies, and to the displeasure of her family Jo wants to enter the Convent. No matter that the Kernahans are Catholic, they'd prefer she chose some other path in life.
Although beautiful and vivacious Angèle is not fast or improper even though she is dedicated to the theater and leads a more bohemian lifestyle than that which is lived at Waterpark. From the first Martin is smitten with her and in his own quiet way, so too is Tom. While Angèle believes she will never marry, too caught up in her art, she understands she is falling for Tom. It's a conflicted love, however, as the love is she believes, just 'good enough'. But is it quite enough to survive the struggle for which their impending marriage will create when they declare it to Hannah and the rest of the family? For Hannah has other ideas for Tom's future and which bride he might choose. More importantly she depends on Tom even to the point of possessiveness. And so it is a battle between, what is termed in the introduction, two kinds of passion.
Being first cousins it's frowned upon in the Church for them to marry and they will require a special dispensation to do so. With the declaration of war an almost certainty the pressure to marry quickly in order for Angèle to return to France to check on her family one last time before settling down at Waterpark and Hannah's manipulations against the pair, however benign they may seem, means the pair is placed in an impossible situation.
I'm very impressed by this story and from what I've read it's not even considered her best, though very good indeed. Despite Hannah's meddlesome ways, she's not a villain, though certainly at times maddening. O'Brien's characters are complex and very human and easy to imagine them as living and breathing individuals. I'll definitely be returning to her work.