THE SUMMER OF '39 by Miranda Seymour


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Biographer (Robert Graves, 1995; Ottoline Morrell, 1993) Seymour offers the tale of one Nancy Brewster, whose unstable life is blown out of the water (and into an asylum) by the unscrupulous Isabel March, a character based on the poet Laura Riding. The central event that we wait (and wait) for here is the 1939 stealing of Nancy Brewster’s putatively brilliant literary husband Chance by the putatively brilliant Isabel March/Laura Riding. Isabel has come to the Brewsters as a long-term houseguest, bringing her English non-husband Charles Neville, based on the poet Robert Graves, who in real life did live with Laura Riding but who could be eliminated here (he does in fact just go away) without loss. The sources of Nancy Brewster’s vulnerability are in no doubt as Seymour invents for her a deeply repressed childhood in Boston, a family who adored her brother but neglected her, a frigid mother, and a father who smothered Nancy with a pillow in order to molest her. Strange it can hardly be that Nancy at 18, when she’s moved to New York and marries the penurious but brainy Princeton grad Chance Brewster in 1925, is still afraid of the dark and has problems with sex. History repeats itself, too, when, like her own mother, Nancy dislikes the daughter born as her first child but adores the second, a son. When a beloved uncle dies and the Brewsters move to his big old house—Nancy’s one childhood Eden—on the sea near Salem, Mass., things seem bucolic on the outside, but when the imperious Isabel arrives and begins to steal Chance away, Nancy breaks down amid the symbols of war, witch-hunts, black magic, and danger gathered about her. Appealing glimpses of the day’s East Coast literary life (watch Edmund Wilson take a whipping), but credibility is strained as the psychology of characters is simplified to fit the tale that needs to be told.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04806-3
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1999


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