The Summer of ’39: A Novel

Written by Miranda Seymour
Review by Kathleen Sullivan

Seymour has effectively used the first person narrative voice to write a compelling novel about a woman’s downward spiral into self-delusion and madness. Originally published in England under the title The Telling, Seymour has written a complex story in which the reader realizes that the “truth” behind Nancy Brewster’s life may never be fully revealed. The story is based upon actual events that occurred in the lives of Robert Graves and Laura Riding — but even without this knowledge, the tale fascinates.

In her old age, Nancy decides to write about the events leading up to her fifteen-year incarceration in a hospital for the insane forty years previously. It is gradually borne upon the reader, but never to Nancy, that because she cannot, or will not, deal with certain truths she will always see herself as an innocent victim — rather than as a person who suffered from mental illness. While an incestuous incident in her youth has something to do with Nancy’s reactions to life, it becomes apparent that she has consistently maintained a kind of tunnel vision which refuses to acknowledge any part of reality which she does not wish to see. It is particularly painful to observe how her refusal to accept help of any kind destroys her marriage and her relationship with her only surviving child.

Seymour has done an excellent job in describing the times from 1900 to 1939 — the excitement of pre-war New York, married life in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, and Nancy’s struggles to help her family to survive economically during the Depression. While Seymour lets us know from the beginning what will happen in the Summer of 1939, it is still shocking to realize the extent of Nancy’s illness. This is a wonderfully told story — compelling, complex and memorable.