Sunday, June 05, 2005

Indian Summer

From Recommended reading

A lesser-known entry in the Americans-in-Europe genre, the school of novels ruled by Edith Wharton and Henry James, William Dean Howells' comedy of manners, "Indian Summer," (New York Review Books, $14) is as sublime as they come. As the title implies, this is a book about a season on the cusp, specifically the season of middle-age in the life of Howells' hero, Theodore Colville. A 40-year-old Midwestern newspaper publisher who finds himself in Florence after selling his business, Colville runs into another American, Lina Bowen, whom he knew years before as the intimate of a woman he loved who jilted him. Mrs. Bowen, now widowed, is spending the season in Florence with her young daughter, Effie, and a friend's 20-year-old daughter, Imogene.

It should be plain from that setup that Colville and Imogene fall for each other. Howells' description of this mutual infatuation is like listening to a melody that's a few beats off the rhythm. No one can quite surrender to the sweetness because no one really believes in it. From the moment Colville and Imogene 'fess up their feelings, they realize they're trapped.

In the finest line of her ace introduction, Wendy Lesser says, "Middle age ... is the period of life at which one first senses what it means to become a part of the past."

"Indian Summer" is not, however, a tragic novel. Ultimately, it's one of those rare works (like Ron Shelton's film "Bull Durham") about the deep, unexpected satisfactions to be found in compromise. [. . . ]


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