A Summons to Memphis

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When Phillip Carver first learns that his father, a respected Memphis lawyer in his eighties, has begun to enjoy the nightlife of the city, he is amused and yet vaguely disturbed. The old man has long been known as a man of honor, the traditional Southern gentleman. For example, as a young lawyer, the father had been deceived by his best friend and client Lewis Shackleford. As a result, he had abruptly moved his family from their ancestral home in Nashville to Memphis and thereafter refused to allow Shackleford’s name to be spoken in the house. Through hard work, he rebuilt his reputation. Now, as an old man, his behavior is both ridiculous and pathetic, although Phillip’s two unmarried, middle-aged sisters, Betsy and Josephine, take a perverse delight in the old man’s self-humiliation. When, however, their father announces his intentions to remarry, his daughters are horrified, not only at his apparent senile foolishness but also at the possibility that their inheritance could be lost. Thus, Phillip is called back to deal with an unpleasant and potentially disastrous situation.

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This is not a novel of action. Indeed, events are remembered or retold rather than presented at first hand. The book has a gentle, comic, and polite style, but the reader soon begins to realize that, as in the best of Peter Taylor’s work, there is much more going on beneath the surface than is at first apparent. For all of his gentility, the father is revealed as a selfish, thoughtless man who has muted the lives of his children. His relationship with Lewis Shackleford is rather mysterious; the cause of the break is never fully explained. His daughters have remained unmarried because of his restrictive sense of honor. His son Phillip lives with a woman but is also unmarried and has apparently retreated from active participation in life. The branch of the family will clearly end with this generation. Thus, there is a real element of revenge in the children’s actions towards the old man: He has circumscribed their lives as young people; they now deny him happiness in the name of respectability and propriety.

This book is Peter Taylor’s second novel in a long and distinguished writing career. It is beautifully constructed; the narration is wonderfully modulated and suggestive. Taylor knows the social games of a Southern culture on its last legs. His story is a sharp comedy of manners, but it also acknowledges the tragedy often found at the heart of any comedy.

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