The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden (1958)

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden is a 1958 coming-of-age novel, crackling with suspense, and portraying love and deceit in the Champagne country in France.

“On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages…” is a  memorable line from this engaging novel based on an incident in Godden’s youth.

Taking place in the shabby hotel of Les Oeillets, once gloriously elegant, the four children of the Grey family find themselves alone with the shady eccentrics who run the hotel. Like many of Godden’s novels, The Greengage Summer was adapted into a 1961 British film starring Kenneth More, Jane Asher, and Susannah York.

 

A Plot Summary of The Greengage Summer 

From the publisher, of the 2016 ebook edition (Open Road Media): A sixteen-year-old girl captures the dangerous attention of an older man in this New York Times–bestselling novel by the author of Black Narcissus. 

Soon after the end of the terrible Great War, Mrs. Grey brings her five young children to the French countryside for the summer in hopes of instilling in them a sense of history and humility. But when she is struck down by a sudden illness and hospitalized, the siblings are left to fend for themselves at the lovely, bullet-scarred hotel Les Oeillets, under the suspicious, watchful eyes of its owner, Mademoiselle Zizi.

The young ones find a willing guide, companion, and protector in charming Englishman Eliot, a longtime resident at Les Oeillets and Mlle. Zizi’s apparent paramour. But as these warm days of freedom, discovery, and adolescent adventure unfold, Eliot’s interest becomes more and more focused on the eldest of the Grey children, sixteen-year-old daughter Joss.

The older man’s obsession with the innocent, alluring, heartbreakingly beautiful woman-child soon threatens to overstep all bounds of propriety. And as Eliot’s fascination increases, so do the jealousy of his disrespected lover, adding fuel to a dangerously smoldering fire that could erupt into unexpected violence at any moment.

Told from the point of view of Cecil, Joss’s sharp-eyed younger sister, The Greengage Summer is a beautiful, poignant, darkly tinged coming-of-age story rich in the sights, smells, and sounds of France’s breathtaking Champagne country. It remains one of the crowning literary achievements of Rumer Godden, acclaimed author of beloved classics Black Narcissus, The River, and In This House of Brede.

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A 1958 review of The Greengage Summer 

From the original review by Elizabeth A. McSherry in The Hartford Courant, April 6, 1958: Rumer Godden’s children are wise beyond their years, and their observations in this enchanting novel solve much of the mystery that eludes their elders, even the detectives.

The story tells of the adventures of five English children on a summer vacation in France in a second-rate hotel near the forest of Compiègne. Their surname is Grey and their ages range from sixteen down to a mere five years. The second sister, some years later, recalls this strange and delightful summer.

Their mother, realizing how circumspect their lives had been in the usual drab watering places where she had taken them on vacations, did a most unpredictable thing. She took them across the Channel for a glimpse at the beauties of France. No sooner had they arrived at the hotel Les Oeiletts than she became seriously ill and was rushed off to a hospital where she had to remain for a long rest.

The children are left in the care of the proprietress, Mademoiselle Zizi, who had little use for them, and her assistant, Madame Corbet, who had so many duties that she paid little attention to them.

They spent much time in the kitchen with Monsieur Armand, reading his crime-filled newspapers, or watching Paul, the sullen helper who had developed a passion for the eldest Grey girl.

But it was the mysterious Englishman Eliot who gave them the most delightful entertainment. One of the oddest things about Eliot was that he had no idea of what kind of person he was. The children knew that he was Mademoiselle Zizi’s friend and that Madame Corbet was jealous of this attachment.

They also observed that Eliot disappeared for days at a time and then came back and made them all happy.

The Grey children’s innocent world and the world of crime are merged in the evil that hovered about the hotel. it was their keen observations that offered clues, hidden in the adult world. What they really learned that summer was that good and even can reside in the same person. in remembering this, they always thought of the good side of Eliot.

If you enjoyed Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, you will find The Greengage Summer a sheer delight. It is witty and profound at the same time.

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