A Summons to Memphis (1986)

by Peter Taylor

Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, A Summons to Memphisis a novel about how supposedly loving family members can obstruct one another. Narrator Phillip Carver's summons to Memphis comes from his two older sisters when their 81-year-old recently widowed father wants to remarry. The family crisis brings up Phillip's memories about his youth in Memphis, including his own and his sisters' thwarted marriage prospects.

More than three decades before, their father, George, betrayed and financially ruined by a client friend, moved them from Nashville to Memphis to start over. The children were then 13, 15, 19, and 20. Betsy, the oldest, was all but engaged to a medical student from a wealthy Nashville family. But George managed to send away Betsy's suitor, as he did with Josephine's and Phillip's when their turns came. None of George Carver's children married. George Jr. was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. Betsy and Josephine are still in Memphis and have successful careers in real estate, but Phillip suspects they're still virgins. Phillip, whose stealthy move to New York two decades earlier was pushed and financed by his sisters, is temporarily separated from a live-in for whom he expresses no passion.

Betsy and Josephine have learned their father's lessons. His interference ruined their chances at happy marriages, and now they exact their revenge. They scheme rather than confront, presenting a loving face while letting George endure ridicule on the Memphis social scene, sabotaging his wedding, and finally moving in with the old man to keep him under constant watch. Taylor draws a lot of interesting contrasts between "new" Memphis and "old" Nashville, but the real relevance of place might be that the story takes place in the South when patriarchs felt entitled to control their offspring, and any rebellion by the offspring was underhanded rather than direct.

Phillip's narration is languid and roundabout. Only gradually are the extent of the father's tyranny and the motives of the daughters revealed. Depending on how a reader views Phillip, very different interpretations of the novel are possible. Phillip finally comes to understand and forgive his father — but is he an unreliable narrator, removed from feelings even while he analyzes repeatedly? This book is too subtle to be a guaranteed upbeat read, but its insights into family dynamics recommend it nonetheless.


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