A Summons to Memphis

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Peter Taylor has long been noted as a writer who respects his readers. He knows that every detail does not have to be spelled out, that what is implied is often more memorable and affecting than what is made plain. He also assumes that his readers can analyze and conclude—can, in essence, compose as active participants in the reading process. For these reasons, Taylor can be a wonderfully suggestive writer, yet he is also an acutely observant narrator, fully aware of those social and personal nuances and subtexts that govern lives.

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A Summons to Memphis is a showcase for Taylor’s virtues. Only the second novel in a long and distinguished career, it is a beautifully constructed work, one of those stories that unfolds, at its own pace, to reveal successive layers of meaning and truth. The story line itself is very simple. Phillip Carver, the narrator, is a middle-aged editor and rare-book collector living a comfortable, retiring life in New York City. He has shared his apartment with a younger woman, Holly Kaplan, but they have never married, and their relationship seems based more on intellectual than emotional or physical attraction. In fact, when the story begins, Holly has just moved out after twelve years, and Phillip has had to face the possibility of living alone.

It is while in this state of mind that he receives phone calls from his two spinster sisters, who still live in Memphis, Tennessee. The news is that their father, George Carver, has decided to remarry at the age of eighty-one, and they want Phillip to come home to deal with the situation. Phillip is somewhat puzzled by their concern, for both Betsy and Jo have tended to be more amused than worried by their father’s behavior since their mother’s recent death. Indeed, they have treated George Carver’s dates with younger women and nights out on the town as something of a joke. Moreover, since the woman that the old man has decided to marry is a respectable widow, the daughters’ objections seem misdirected. Both daughters have made careers for themselves as successful realtors, and yet they are also known as rather outrageous characters themselves who have flouted social traditions and expectations. Phillip is convinced that there is more to their opposition than is readily apparent.

Indeed there is, as is revealed in Phillip’s memory. In 1931, the family lived in Nashville, where George Carver was a respected and successful lawyer, his wife a lady of distinguished social standing, and the children well on their way to taking their places among the city’s elite. In that year, however, George Carver was deceived by his best friend and client Lewis Shackleford, in whose illegal business dealings he was unknowingly implicated. Devastated by the betrayal and dishonored by the association (thereafter, he refuses to allow Shackleford’s name to be spoken in his presence), the lawyer abruptly moved his family from the home in Nashville to the alien city of Memphis, determined to reestablish his good name. Nevertheless, as Phillip remembers, “Our removal proved to be a disaster for everyone except Father, I think.”

Most obviously affected was his mother, Minta, who had lived all of her life in Nashville and compared their “removal” to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Although a vivacious and energetic woman before the move, she would spend the remaining years of her life an invalid and live her social life through her husband’s accounts of parties he attended. Also ruined by the move were Phillip’s sisters, who were nineteen and twenty at the time and just entering society. Betsy’s engagement was broken off, and, once in Memphis, Jo’s romances were nipped in the bud by her father’s possessive demands. Phillip thinks that his life also was destroyed by the move, though he was only a child at the time, and he suspects that his failure to...

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