Rumer Godden •
The Greengage Summer •
Cecil, her three sisters, and her brother are marooned at a tiny French hotel when their mother falls ill during a trip abroad. The proprietress of Les Oeillets—which courts the tourist trade by freshening the bullet holes over its staircase and burying a skull in the garden for visitors to “discover”—is none too pleased about being saddled with “an orphanage.”
But Eliot, another English guest, steps in to care for them. From the first the children are puzzled by his moodiness. Seeing seven-year-old Willmouse’s preoccupation with clothing, he gives the boy a lavishly illustrated book of old masters; when Cecil makes her transition into womanhood he is kindness personified. But he also scolds for no reason, changes plans abruptly, and disappears for days at a time.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Joss has blossomed into a head-turning beauty, and all the males in the vicinity—Eliot included—begin acting strangely around her. And on the night of the Brass Instruments Ball, events take a sinister turn.
Godden anchors the story with a wealth of believable detail. The children are spaced three years apart because the expeditions of their botanist father usually last three years. Joss, taking a correspondence course in art, feels obliged to write to the instructor, “I am sorry I cannot find a naked man anywhere.” Cecil is the most proficient in French because the punishment at her school in England consisted of learning French poetry.
When a police inspector reveals the extent of Eliot’s wrongdoing and asks triumphantly, “Are you going to like him after that?” the three younger children respond in unison, “Yes.” And even with the law on his heels, Eliot manages a parting act of thoughtfulness. “He always did look after us,” says Hester.