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A Summons to Memphis
by Peter Taylor

Book Description
Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

"American readers demand novels, and now Peter Taylor has given them one; to say that it is every bit as good as the best of his short stories is the highest compliment it can be paid."

When Phillip Carver receives, on a lonely Sunday evening, two successive telephone calls from his sisters, begging him to leave his home in Manhattan and return immediately to Memphis, he is slow to agree. His sisters, middle-aged and unmarried, want his help in averting the remarriage of their father, an elderly widower. And although Phillip wants no part in such manipulations, he finds himself unable to refuse to make the trip South...and into his own past.

From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, May 15, 2004 08:18 AM When I first started reading this it was almost like I was hearing the narration of a movie. The voice was so clear in my head. He spoke slowly and leisurely with no thought to the time it would take to tell, or whether he was getting in all the details; there would always be time for more later. When he would repeat himself, there was always a little more information. By the time I got to the end of the book, the repetitions served to make it seem like I had heard these stories all my life. That they were about my family and I was listening to a dear uncle retell and elaborate on a family history. I donít know whether itís an improvement or not, but I doubt that any U.S. city today would mark a person for life the way Nashville marked Phillip Carver. I found the comparisons between Nashville society and Memphis society fascinating. The homogeneity of our cities and the ease of travel and the inconstancy of jobs in todayís world, makes this story seem like a time preserved in amber. I moved from a southern community in North Carolina to a suburb of Baltimore when I was sixteen. I was ready for the move though, and felt relief from the oppressive constant scrutiny of family, church and community. But I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed. My life would have been so totally different, and Iím not positive it would have been worse. If George Carver had not been betrayed by his best friend, what would his childrensí lives been like? And why in the world did he resist all of them ever getting married? Was it just that no one was good enough? Or that he wasnít in control of the situation? Sherry
From: R Bavetta Date: Saturday, May 15, 2004 11:46 AM Omigosh. Forgot to read this. I'll be back. R
From: Dale Short Date: Saturday, May 15, 2004 03:55 PM Glad you liked this one as much as I did, Sherry. The methodical voice was an obstacle to me at first, as I started the book the third time before I could really get into it. But once I slowed my brain down and listened the the voice, I was fascinated. Nothing flashy or jolting, just the observations of a very intelligent, reflective guy about his off-beat family. Very deserving of its Pulitzer, in my opinion. One strength of this novel, I think, is that Taylor hits perfectly the intersection between the specific and the universal of family life. On one hand, these people are from a particular level of class and income and education, particularly very Deep South, but at the same time there are universal, eternal things about family at work here and I felt I knew these folks. The father is a complex ball of yarn, isn't he? Re: the lack of marriages, I think he's into control, but not the typical kind we see in fiction, i.e. overbearing, etc. Way more subtle. Strange bird. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Sunday, May 16, 2004 09:23 PM Sherry and Dale, I got very irritated with the narrator for blaming his father for what happened to them because of the one move during their teenage years. Then I got irritated with the father for controlling their lives and trying to keep the children at home and under his control. I was really appalled by the way that the father stopped the narrator's marriage to the love of his life. The sisters did get their revenge in the end. Jane
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, May 17, 2004 07:14 AM Moving house (as Sheila would say) back then must have been a much bigger deal than it is now. I know that for a fact. When we moved from NC to Baltimore in 1964, much angst went into the decision. My father's family had farmed that little piece of land for over two hundred years (maybe more, if some of the genealogy information I saw years ago is correct). My father lived alone in an apartment for two or three years just to make sure the job would stick before he brought his family. So leaving is like a kind of betrayal for some people. In today's rootless world, it's more like just an inconvenience. I don't know which is a better situation. I didn't feel he exactly blamed his father, he was just trying to figure out what happened, and he saw his moving as the pivotal point. He was stuck. It was as if he left all the energy for change and growth back where he came from. In the new place he floundered and lost direction. I can see that. It sort of happened to me. I liked moving to Baltimore, but I really didn't have an identity. I ended up getting married young and not going to college until I was in my thirties. That wouldn't have happened had I stayed in NC. I'm not saying it didn't turn out fine, but it did turn out different. Can anyone figure out why the father was so against the loves of his children's lives? I don't see that as a Southern thing. This was peculiar to this man. Did it have to do with "class"? I wasn't in his class in NC; I was in the farm family class, which didn't do debutante balls. Sherry
From: Jean Keating Date: Monday, May 17, 2004 12:29 PM Sherry, When I read Summons several years ago, I had the same questions you posed regarding the father's opposition to his childrens' marriages. I also remember the lengths his daughters went to in order to get even with him. Jean K.
From: Mary Anne Papale Date: Monday, May 17, 2004 09:03 PM When I first started reading Summons I thought I had read it before. But as I went on I realized I was confusing it with Welty's The Optimist's Daughter. It seems like in both the adult kids aren't too happy with the widowed father's choices in women. But to get back to your question, Sherry, I felt that the father had a total need for validation. Having been denied it from his best friend, he was going to extract that pound of flesh from his family at all costs. There's probably more to it than that, but that's the way it seemed to me. MAP
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 07:00 AM That makes sense, MAP. I hadn't connected the dots. His friend betrays him (and could all of you quite understand the nature of the betrayal besides it had something to do with money?) and he wants all his family roosted around him in one little nest. No stragglers. Be happy, but don't get too comfortable, because that would mean you were betraying (that word again) your roots. George paid a big price for getting away, didn't he? Too bad he couldn't have found a safer escape. Sherry
From: R Bavetta Date: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 02:03 PM I felt like this book was suffocating me. At the beginning, I thought the author and/or the protagonist was just going to fill us in on a little background material before getting to the action at hand, the trip to Memphis to prevent the fatherís remarriage. But it went on, and on, and onÖ Even after I finally realized this wasnít the intro, but the entire book, I still had the sensation of waiting for the real action to begin. And it never did. I read on and on getting deeper and deeper into the cotton wool, and finally the book stopped. I kept feeling like everyone needed to stop dreaming about the lost Nashville and get on with life. What was with them? Enough is enough. Everything changed because they went to Memphis? Everything changes every time we make a decision or have one forced on us. I could say my life changed when we moved from near downtown LA out to Encino. Ah, well, maybe that was the point of the book. But to dwell on that change forever? Surely thatís unhealthy. I was reminded of Shakespeare, ďThe fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.Ē R
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 05:50 PM Ruth, I was so happy to read your reflections on the book. I thought it was very odd and the narrator one of the strangest birds in the nest (or out of it). I suppose that was part of the point; he lives with many delusions about himself and his attitudes. And I thought he definitely blamed his father: he attributed the move to Memphis (breaking up his "relationship" with the little Nashville girl!) with the ruin of his life. He says the father should have considered the effect of such a move on the rest of the family (especially him!). At one point he says that it was this -- the end of his short-pants relationship with the Nashville girl, which made him feel like a precocious little Lothario -- and not the break-up of his engagement to the woman in Chattanooga, which made him incapable of having a good adult relationship with a woman. I loved the last line: "How else, I ask myself, can one think of the end of two such serenely free spirits as Holly Kaplan and I?" It ain't just a river in Egypt, Phil! Mary Ellen
From: Mary Anne Papale Date: Tuesday, May 18, 2004 08:13 PM Yes, Ruth, I know exactly what you mean. The narrator gives us background, background, and more background leading up to his trip to Memphis. All the while, I'm thinking "But you live in New York City and there's an understanding significant other in your life. Will you get a grip on yourself?" I guess the narrator thinks that keeping his distance is the best way to get over his disappointments. But the ability of the family ties to reach out and grab him was too strong. The sisters were maddening. The scene in the restaurant when they embarrass both father and son and get away with it is astounding to me. Why is our narrator so passive with his sisters? Does he feel like such an outsider that he does not have the right to voice his opinion? I once felt that way because I was the only sibling who moved out of town. When I returned for a visit it was hard for my opinions to be heard because I wasn't there for the day to day duties. Knowing that, I also toned down my opinions considerably. So I think that situation was part of the narrator's problem with his sisters. But I also think he took his passivity to an extreme. MAP
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, May 19, 2004 07:26 AM Boy, it's interesting how even though the book didn't exactly grab all of us, we sure do see elements of our lives portrayed here. I think Taylor captured the family dynamics very accurately. Sherry
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, May 19, 2004 01:31 PM It's true that the sisters were annoying, but I found the narrator's attitude toward them even more so. He was so uncomfortable with their sexuality: his insistence that they remained virgins; his constant references to the (growing!) size of their bodies, especially their legs. Perhaps this was another aspect of the family "freezing" mentally and emotionally after the move from Nashville to Memphis. The narrator was in early adolescence then and very conscious, I'm sure, of his older sisters' bodies and physical maturity. But to keep that focus as a middle-aged man was creepy! What did you all think about Alex Mercer and his role in the story? Mary Ellen
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 07:33 AM I think Alex Mercer is one of those gentle people who take care of things and are always taken advantage of by the people he does things for. Remember that the narrator could never recall how many children Alex had? That seemed odd to me. A sort of passive aggressiveness that was the narrator's trademark (his whole family seemed steeped in passive aggressiveness). It told me he wouldn't take the life Alex lead seriously enough to even remember a major fact about him. By dismissing the children and their importance, the narrator dismissed Alex's whole way of life, it seems. He relegated fatherhood to something one just waves their hand at and ignores. Sherry
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 09:46 AM Sherry, I think that you are right on target about Alex Mercer. I remember that the narrator said some very cruel things about how stupid Alex's children were. I also have to relate this book to my childhood. Because of my father's job, we moved from Georgia where I was born to Kentucky to Brazil to Idaho to Washington to Oregon and back to Brazil. And I was only seven years old when we went to Brazil that second time. The important thing was that I was with my parents and I knew that they loved me. The narrator's parents obviously loved him. That whole social class thing got to me, too. Jane
From: Dale Short Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 10:40 AM Sherry: Very astute analysis of Alex,I think. On reflection, I realize that the first time I read this novel, Alex seemed not nearly as screwed up emotionally as I now recognize him to be, and as you guys' notes shed light on. I'm wondering if to some degree this sort of indentured servitude to one's parents and one's past is a Southern phenomenon. At any rate it's very familiar to me, even if these folks' social class is not. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 12:50 PM Sherry, I agree with your assessment of Alex. I found it hard to understand Alex's devotion to the Carver family, but in the end concluded that the narrator was far more messed up psychologically than Alex. At first I wondered why the author included the bit about Alex's proposal to the narrator, regarding giving his rare book collection to the university and in turn getting (what sounded to me like) a sinecure teaching position. It seemed like a weird thing, irrelevant to the rest of the story. But then I got this thought: maybe Alex saw that the narrator was unravelling and realized his extraordinary attachment to Memphis and his childhood, and came up with this idea to help him out. Too far-fetched? I picked up on the narrator's description of Alex's behavior the during his last visit home (not saying good-bye when he left the house after the death of Shackleford, not coming in the day he drove the narrator to the airport) that Alex had finally had it with the family and that he saw them for the messed-up bunch that they were. (Re-reading that section, I just got so angry at Phillip's dismissive and superior attitude toward Alex!) Mary Ellen
From: Dale Short Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 03:41 PM my most recent note in this thread, I wrote "Alex" when I meant "Phillip." Sorry for the confusion. I've edited the note to correct this. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Mary Anne Papale Date: Thursday, May 20, 2004 11:09 PM Yes, Sherry, I think you are so right about the narrator's treatment of Alex. I think Phillip resented the fact that Alex grew close to the father, even at a young age. So when the narrator should have been sharing things with his father as a teen, he wasn't. His best friend was instead. Phillip grew to resent Alex as his replacement. And Alex is horrified at the sisters treatment of the father. He's always telling Phillip every disgusting detail. But perhaps Phillip is secretly pleased that old man is getting what he would like to dish out himself if he had the nerve. MAP
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, May 21, 2004 07:35 AM The more I think about this, the more it becomes obvious that Phillip was a terribly unreliable narrator. Not so much that he lied to us, but that I think he withheld crucial information, mainly because he also withheld it from himself. Boy, I think it would be so hard for a writer to do that. It's so natural to feel sympathetic to a narrator. You're inside his head, so to speak, so when you get back outside and see things from without his perspective, things fall into place. But I would never have thought about any of this had I not started writing and talking about it. I would have been "on to the next book." Sherry

Peter Taylor
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