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[395] Reading Turgenev – William Trevor

Note: Reading Turgenev is published under the title Two Lives, a volume of two novels.

” She wasn’t worth anyone’s love, she said. She had married a man for gain. She had married out of impatience and boredom, and had been handed both back with interest added. ” (14,103)

In 1955, Mary Louise Dallon, an Irish country girl raised on a farm, marries above her means to Elmer Quarry, a wealthy draper whose family has enjoyed generations of mercantile fortune. Other than the difference in age and generation (Mary Louise is 14 years younger), nothing about the alliance shall cause undue apprehension. But Elmer’s two sisters, both spinsters, look upon the marriage with displeasure from the beginning for there is a flightiness in Mary Louise’s eyes that fails to convince them she will be a responsible wife.

Conversing with her on later occasions, she was confirmed in this opinion, ad came to realize—to her great disappointment—that her optimism at the time of the wedding had been misplaced. (8,69)

She has married Elmer for gain; but what she dreams of before the marriage has not come true: being looked up to in town, being at liberty with money to spare for the clothes she covets, being the co-owner of Elmer’s house, and being deferred to at the shop.

Mary Louise did not change her ways. She had come to terms with Elmer and his sisters, she no longer feared the wrath of the two women’s tongues and long ago she had ceased to wish to please her husband.” (20,138)

Mary Louise’s unhappiness, unbeknownst to neither her family nor her husband, is beyond the unconsummated marriage. A grievous mistake it is to have married Elmer, she indulges in the fond memories of her invalid cousin who has been in love with her back in school. After Robert dies, she clings to a refuge in which her love affair—-more a beloved companionship, in which Robert reads to her Turgenev’s books—could spread itself, a safe house offering a sanctuary from her misery. It’s inevitable that under these warped values life is at once tragic and ceaselessly mysterious.

She blamed God for that; in her attic she made an enemy of God because all she had left was the echo of her cousin’s voice—the way he had of pronouncing certain words, the timbre of his intonations, the images his voice conveyed.
‘I dreamed I was sad and sometimes cried. But through the tears and the melancholy, inspired by the music of the verse or the beauty of the evening, there always rose upwards, like the grasses of early spring, shoots of happy feeling…’
Again and gain his voice repeated it. Hers now joined in. For these were words they must learn by heart, he’d said. (18.127)

Unhappiness breeds confusion and misunderstanding, but only in Mary Luise’s family and her husband’s house. Her abstracted manner, the impatient brevity of home visit, and disjointed wildness of her words become sound evidence of her deviation from what they regard as normal behavior. Rooted beneath this sophisticated story is a sensibility that will make this novel and its heroine very memorable. A grievous mistake has ruined her life and rid of her happiness. To make amend for the wrong, she resorts to an extraordinary reality that others see as madness. Reading Turgenev is a book of profound importance for our condition as social and moral beings. Revealed in the pattern of characters’ relationships are radical opposition to and subversion of values—in money, social status, love, marriage and family. These warped values dictate a view of life at once tragic and beautiful, and ceaselessly mysterious. A quiet, repressed you woman by nature, becomes the ultimate outsider within her husband’s family. Evocative of Turgenev’s works of which the subject is often unhappy and unrequited love, the book deals with an unconsummated marriage and a first love revived, also unconsummated. Ironic that she can only re-live in memory and imagination the only happiness she has known. While substantial portion of the narrative concerns with the “normal” world of young womanhood and marriage, it yields more pain and misery than the life of madness in which she is able to create as a defense against her great loss of love.

Does love like hrs frighten everyone just a little? (30,221)

The poignant beauty of this book really lies in the majority’s inability to understand the acts of great respect and tenderness.

222 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


5 Responses

  1. This sounds incredible. Very deep and thoughtful.

  2. The subject of “unrequited love” ties in well with Turgenev, which I wish I had promoted more in my quick review of the story. I chose the similarity of Mary Louise to a Turgenev maiden instead which, while not incorrect, does not cover other aspects of her story. Thanks for the review.

  3. I read this novel a couple of years ago and loved it. Thank you for this review — Trevor’s work is so wise and tender. When I read Reading Turgenev I also had the opportunity to read two of the books the lovers in the story are reading, On the Eve and First Love, and that experience gave me an even deeper respect for what Trevor accomplishes in this novel — how well he captures the spirit of Turgenev.

  4. Marrying for the wrong reasons is the worst thing one can do. In some ways it reminds me of Jude the Obscure.

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