Three Summers, by Magarita Liberaki [1919-2001], weaves a dreamy, cinematic tapestry of Greek village life. Originally published in 1946, the novel has been reissued, translated by Karen Van Dyck. It's set in the countryside around Athens, "where all the gardens were."
Over the titular three summers, three sisters come of age in their divorced mother's home, alongside a cast of colorful characters: "Spinster" Aunt Theresa, Grandfather, Rodia the maid, who imparts family secrets; Mr. Louzis, Mother's admirer; droves of hungry local boys; and Miltos, the girls' father, who lives in Athens.
Youngest sister Katerina narrates from her first person child's perspective, with occasional departures to give voice to her sisters' interior lives. Katerina's narration generates the book's dreaminess; she's an imaginative storyteller with "a tendency to make things up ... and then later to think they're true."
The book begins with a mystery: What happened to their Polish grandmother, who left with a musician passing through Athens, abandoning Mother and Aunt Theresa when they were young girls? Katerina returns repeatedly to this inquiry, frustrated by her inability to solve it.
Oldest sister Maria, impossibly mature, consumes much of Katerina's attention. Maria makes her way through the village boys before appropriately marrying a young doctor and starting a family, doling out chastisements and life advice in equal measure.
Second sister Infanta is aloof. She's a purist who declines to engage with the world, instead riding her beloved horse at breakneck speed around the countryside with a boy named Nikitas. The differences among the sisters are symbolized, in part, by their looks: "Maria's eyes were black, Infanta's green, and Katerina's brown."
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Mother stays at arm's length from her daughters. She's private and enigmatic, the subject of Katerina's ongoing speculation. What does Mother do in her study? What does she think about as she plays piano behind closed doors? What about her clandestine meetings with Mr. Louzis?
The family gardens and keeps goats. They take walks through the glorious countryside; they visit neighbors and entertain guests. Roiling beneath the bucolic scenery, however, are violent and unpleasant realities that Katerina exposes with a child's naiveté, intuiting violence after Infanta makes clear to Nikitas that she doesn't want a sexual relationship: "The more she restrained herself, the more angry he grew. He wanted to beat her."
And violence is why Aunt Theresa remains single: She was raped by the man she loved. Rodia, the maid, whispers to Katerina --
"He made her a woman against her will."
"But Rodia, isn't it true that when a woman loves a man she gives herself to him?"
Other shadows surround the characters under Katerina's scrutiny. She herself falls in love with David, an astronomer, who is part Jewish. Echoes of the Holocaust accompany him. Grandfather is beginning to die. His gait is unstable and his features are "finishing themselves off."
Katerina's parents' divorce perplexes her — she observes them throughout the book, but it's never clear how they really feel about each other. Mother seems to pine for Father, while Father makes plans to remarry. Grandmother, on the other hand, holds strong opinions. "Most men deceive their wives," Grandmother says, "the only difference was that Miltos did so openly." Grandmother blames Mother for the divorce, judging her proud and stubborn.
Time starts and stops over the three summers, as the girls mature at differing paces. Liberaki creates the fluidity of time through her lush descriptions:
Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples ... the more the day progressed the lighter the blue until it was almost gray-white.... by midday it seemed an ashen covering had descended, bringing a certain gloominess. Breathing was harder, but then at some moment the covering would lift, become deep blue once attain with white clouds racing by.
What does it mean to be a woman? This question pervades the book. Katerina observes her sister Maria through a rapt and gauzy lens. She admires Maria's confidence as well as her melancholy; she's awestruck by Maria's suffering during childbirth.
By the third summer, Katerina is grappling with her own womanhood. She can't decide if she wants to be part of a couple. She vacillates between extremes of longing and insisting it is her fate to be single. David's "absence was something different from him, but it was also like him. I loved his absence." At one point, Katerina declares it is only Maria she will love. Maria's mother-in-law, who also appears to love David, names the conundrum: "[A] woman has two different and contradictory desires, on the one hand to be free and on the other to submit."
Katerina's efforts to assemble a framework that reconciles her fantasies with the bewildering and disturbing facts she encounters make Three Summers both engaging and provocative. Liberaki skillfully raises questions; it's up to the reader to wrestle with them. As the book concludes, Katerina offers a resolution about love, women, and family. It may not tie up the novel's many mysteries, but it conjures a lovely rose-colored vision:
I realize how much my love for my mother was like a lover's: the stubbornness, the moments of hatred, and the limitless tenderness afterwards. And my love for my father was the love of mankind.
Martha Anne Toll is the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund; her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com, and she tweets at @marthaannetoll. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.