The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

greengage-summer1958. Pan Books. Paperback. 187 pages.

Recommendation from: A Book Blog of One’s Own


I read the lovely Greengage Summer back in June, my first time reading Rumer Godden. Inspired by an event from Godden’s own childhood, the book is about a English family’s vacation to France gone awry. The story is narrated by a thirteen-year-old girl, Cecil Grey, the second of five children. She explains that three years separates each of the siblings, as “Father’s expeditions usually lasted three years.” (He is some sort of botanist.) One fraught day at the beach, their exasperated mother decides that they must go visit the battlefields of France (this is after WWI) so they can learn to be less selfish and appreciate what others have sacrificed for them. Their mother whisks the children off to France, to the disapproval of her much older brother, Uncle William. She almost immediately falls seriously ill, and by the time she and the children arrive at their hotel Les Oeillets, she must be hospitalized. Too proud to send for Uncle William’s help, she implores a fellow Englishman at the hotel, named Eliot, to look after the children at the hotel.

The children basically become wards of the hotel for weeks. They roam the grounds, and have their favorite spots and activities soon picked out (the title refers to the hotel’s greengage plums upon which they gorge themselves.) Though concerned for their mother, they also revel in the new sights and culture and their relative freedom.

Through Cecil’s eyes, you see the children, particularly the oldest girl, Joss, try to navigate the world of the adults of Les Oeillets. The children come to love Eliot, as he listens to them, and treats their concerns and interests seriously. But to use my favorite quote from the movie The Matador, “Just because we shared a laugh, doesn’t mean I’m not unsavory.” The reader quickly realizes that Eliot’s motivations regarding the children are not purely compassionate. In part, he carries on with them because of an infatuation with Joss, who is sixteen and beautiful. But he is also playacting with them, acting out a different life as if he were a family man.

The hotel is run by Madame Corbet and Mademoiselle Zizi, who may lean toward French stereotype, but are fascinating characters all the same. They are often motivated by jealousy. Madame Corbet is jealous of Mlle Zizi’s time with Eliot. Mlle Zizi is jealous of Joss. Joss is provoked, then, to asserting herself as an adult, though she is not really ready to be one. Cecil herself is envious of Joss’s beauty, feeling herself the plainer sibling, but she is not spiteful about it like Mlle Zizi.

Other hotel staff and guests fill out the remaining adult characters, including an older teenager named Paul who fills Cecil in on all the history behind the hotel personalities. His view of the world, shaped by a life of hard knocks, is rather shocking to Cecil but an education in its own way.

I loved the characters of the children most of all. I have a fondness of stories that feature strong sibling bonds, and there is plenty on show in The Greengage Summer. Each child has a distinct personality, and their knowledge of each other’s strengths and flaws rang true as a portrait of sibling life. And though the story is narrated by Cecil, there are bursts of commentary from the siblings, and even Uncle William at times – framed as if Cecil is consulting them as she writes their story. These commentaries and Cecil’s own narration hum with portent; there are hints of awful events and revelations to come. At the same time, the book is able to conjure up the languor of summer, the pains and pleasures of coming-of-age, the delight in travel.

The writing is insightful, evocative and entertaining. The structure of this short novel is impeccable. I read somewhere, or perhaps one of my fellow book club members remarked, that Greengage Summer‘s pacing is like that of a play – a comparison to which I fully agree. There are nearly demarcated acts, and with each act, the story builds and builds until the brilliant conclusion, where you realize that the childrens’ story intersects with a completely different type of narrative, and they are “rescued” in a way that I found hilarious and poignant at the same time.

One of my favorite books so far this year, The Greengage Summer was an excellent early summer read. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book, which reads like the voice-over narration of a classic film’s first scene (perhaps the camera is floating through the aisles between the orchard trees as it is spoken):

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. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will – though he was called Willmouse then – Willmouse and Vicky were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

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.

Cue title card.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bibliolathas – “Godden’s characterisation of [Cecil’s] naïveté yet concomitant loss of innocence is astonishingly good.”

The Literary Stew – “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.”

Teresa at Shelf Love – “Godden very wisely makes it clear that Joss’s growth in itself is just a thing that happens, that she is in no way to blame for what others think . . . Her attention to Joss’s predicament and Cecil’s mixed feelings about this new Joss is consistently respectful and honest.”

A Work in Progress – “Godden is obviously quite comfortable residing in the heart and mind of a child yet she tells this very nuanced story with simple sophistication . . .  I love her writing style which is so lush and fitting for the story she told.”


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6 responses to “The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

  1. piningforthewest

    I thought I had read this one years ago when I went on a Godden binge but now realise that I didn’t, although I have a copy in English and even one in Dutch. I’m going to rectify my mistake very soon, thanks.

  2. yayyyyyyyy oh how I love it when people love my wonderful Rumer Godden! Hoooooorayyyyyy. What else have you read by her?

  3. This is the first book I’ve read by Rumer Godden, and it does leave me with the desire to read more by her. I have In This House of Brede on my to-read list.

  4. piningforthewest

    I’ve read In this House of Brede, Black Narcissus, Kingfishers Catch Fire, China Court, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, The China Doll, and Cromartie v. the God Shiva – possibly more, but so long ago I can’t remember!

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