The New Yorker: “Summer of ’38” by Colm Tóibin

130304_2013_p154March 4, 2013: “Summer of ’38” by Colm Tóibin

I found this story by Colm Tóibin pretty ordinary, although beautifully told in an unusual setting. The story is available to read online for free. The Q&A with Colm Tóibin doesn’t make the story any more interesting, although I did learn something about the author.

The story is told in retrospect, although the present frame is the most interesting part of it. An older woman, Montse, who lives in an isolated village in Spain, is caused to reflect on the Summer of ’38 because an old soldier, who had become one of Franco’s Generals, is returning to visit and has asked to see her. She claims that she has no recollection of him but at first agrees to meet with him anyway. In fact, though, she remembers him well because she had had an affair with him. The story then launches into the long recollection of that affair. She became pregnant but the soldier had to leave. She married Paco, who had longed for her, and he treated the child as his own. (Yawn.) Returning the present, Montse summons the child (who now is a doctor, and married with children of her own), and the reader suspects that Montse will not only tell the daughter who her true father is but will introduce them.

Read the story to find out what happens!

Again, while the writing is beautiful, and the setting unusual, I was hoping for more than a story about a poor slob who knows his wife is pregnant with another man’s child but raises the baby as his own.

I find that when I say things like this, lots of people disagree with me but don’t speak up. Feel free to do so! Please leave a comment telling me why you loved this story.

6 thoughts on “The New Yorker: “Summer of ’38” by Colm Tóibin”

  1. ” find that when I say things like this, lots of people disagree with me”

    Not sure why. Your assessment of the story pretty much matched my own, except I’d add that I was especially perturbed that the story didn’t evolve the way you were hoping because at one point, the author told us that of all of the children of Paco and Montse (i.e. they had more of their own later), Rosa, the general’s child, was Paco’s favorite.

    The author really didn’t need to add that tidbit. But having gone out of his way to do so, the author wound up having elevated the significance Paco’s inner-being and, therefore, really should have put more effort into developing that character.

  2. If the disagreers “don’t speak up,” then how do you find out about their views? When you meet them at writing workshops?

  3. Paul, yes, I guess I did muddle that remark a bit. I meant that they don’t leave comments here but tell me later in another forum. Or maybe I can just sense this groundswell of disagreement, even though it never appears . . . 🙂

  4. There’s not a yawn in this story. Longing, sex and possibly love, despair, rescue, respect, and caring. Toibin captures that longing and the terrible fear and shame of unplanned pregnancy. Young women around the world still do what Montse did–marry with the hope of respectability and possibly love. In that time girls were sent away until a child was born. If they came home, the waters would close over them and life might go on without the father of the child knowing, or caring. Suicide. Self induced abortion or botched illegal abortion might have brought Montse’s death or sterility, if it had even been considered an option. This is a universal story, of lovers and children of military men around the world. There is no rape, but the consequences of sex with soldiers is an ancient story. How lucky was Rosa to be cared for rather than completely reviled within her community. What a strong woman, and wise, to have survived and to have treated Paco with dignity in return for his fidelity.

  5. Yes, very well put, Allison. It is the evoking of those emotions that make this a beautiful story. Montse’s struggle with whether to meet Rudolfo and her struggle about whether to reveal him to Rosa were especially poignant. I love how she carries out those struggles so stoically. We don’t listen in to her thinking about it. We get everything by watching what she says and does.

    The plot plays its important part, but story is more than plot. And therein lies the essence of this disagreer’s disagreement. No story, certainly not one like this, can be evaluated only on the basis of its plot or be done justice by a summary of its plot.

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