The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear-green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet. Coming from the streets and small front gardens of Southstone, we had not been let loose in an orchard before, it was no wonder we ate too much.
'Summer sickness,' said Mademoiselle Zizi.
'Indigestion,' said Madame Corbet.
I do not know which it was, but ever afterwards, in our family, we called that the greengage summer.
I don't know how many of you managed to join the group read of the Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden because it's not exactly easy to find copies. Please let me know if you've reviewed it and I'll link to your blog or to your web page. I found my pristine 1959 hardbound copy at a secondhand bookstore. I was actually hunting down another Godden novel, In this House of Brede. Instead, I found the Greengage Summer which turned out to be a fabulous find.
The story is set in a French countryside pension, where five young children are left alone after their mother is suddenly taken ill. For the first time in their young lives, they are absolutely free to run around and do exactly what they please and they revel in it. There's something to be said about idle childhood summers. Somehow they always turn out to be the most memorable, don't you agree? The children are befriended by a young Englishman called Eliott who appears to be romantically linked to Madmoiselle Zizi, the proprietor of the pension. What follows is a haunting summer where the children suddenly come of age in different ways. The story is told from the point of view of the second oldest child, thirteen-year-old Cecil who narrates her impressions about that unforgettable time. She also observes the growing attraction between her beautiful sixteen-year-old sister, Joss, and Eliott, which will ultimately lead to tragedy.
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did.
This is a book that grows on you. Whenever I read something about Godden, images from the book come back to me. Flashes of that summer, lying on the grass eating the greengages, having the first taste of champagne and exploring the countryside. I think it's memorable because Godden's writing is very visual and her descriptions intoxicating. Cecil's impressions about her surroundings, her family and the people at the hotel are realistic and innocent yet at the same time they show shades of growing maturity. Because she is still a child on the brink of adulthood, she doesn't notice everything. As an adult reader you somehow see what's under the surface. This is a novel about the thoughts and views of a child in an adult world and the misunderstandings that result from it.
I thought the Greengage Summer was a sensitive and bittersweet coming-of-age novel. It's a book I'll definitely return to from time to time. Did you manage to join the group read? I look forward to reading your reviews.
Bookheaper co-hosted the group read. You can check out her review here.