August is Women in Translation Month, and I am happy that the first novel I chose to read, a foray into Greece, turned out to be such a good one, not surprising given that it’s from the ever reliable NYRB Classics.
Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.
First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”
Set in a village a few miles from Athens, the first chapter is a picture of idyll – the sisters lying in a hayfield, the sky, the wildflowers and the three of them all melted into one. It’s the time for intense conversations and sharing secrets and this summer Katerina, who was otherwise excluded because she was the youngest, will also be part of her sisters’ confidences.
Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us. Maria is sexually bold and the nucleus of attraction for most of the local boys including Marios Parigori, a budding doctor, who is passionately in love with her. But just as she is forward in acting on her desires, Maria displays an equal keenness for the traditional ideas of marriage and motherhood.
Infanta is a stunning beauty but distant, it is very difficult to fathom what’s going on inside her head. Inexpressive yet fearless, Infanta is initially drawn to Marios but later strikes up a friendship with Nikitas fuelled by their passion for horseriding. As their friendship deepens, Nikitas begins to harbor romantic feelings for Infanta, which both excite and torment him, since Infanta remains withdrawn and unwilling to express herself.
Our narrator, Katerina, is imaginative, rebellious and prone to throwing tantrums. Katerina loves being with her sisters but also treasures her time alone when she can lose herself in her thoughts and conjure up an imaginary world influenced by the books she reads.
When the sun’s glare tired my eyes and my limbs felt as if I had drunk sweet wine, I would go to the barn to find quiet, a quiet full of shade and the smell of hay. People and faraway places filled my quiet time there: coloured ribbons blowing in the wind, orange seas, Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Odysseus on the islands of Caplypso and Circe.
She falls deeply in love with David, an astronomer, who is temperamentally very different, but reciprocates her sentiments.
While Three Summers burns brightly with light, laughter and innocence, there are also darker currents that simmer underneath. This becomes apparent when we are provided a glimpse into friends and family whose lives are intricately woven with those of the three sisters. Indeed, through their stories, various themes are explored throughout the novel – marriage, motherhood, divorce, abandonment, abuse, sexual awakening, freedom and the bond between siblings.
Their mother Anna, recently divorced from their father Miltos, is beset by bouts of loneliness and sadness although she maintains a dignified presence. Miltos, a banker, never had much time for his wife engrossing himself instead in his hobbies. But despite the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Maria, Infanta and Katerina bear them no ill will.
Anna was also nice. But ever since she got divorced she didn’t laugh much and she would only talk about her property and sew.
Early on in the novel, the clandestine past of their Polish grandmother (Anna’s mother) fascinates the three sisters, especially Katerina. When a musician visits their home, the Polish grandmother is so besotted with him that she abandons her husband (Dimitris, the Grandfather), and two daughters (Anna and Theresa) and runs off with him to travel the world. Her betrayal means that it is taboo to mention her name in the house, but Katerina can’t help wondering if her mother has been traumatized by that incident, and whether she and her sisters have not inherited some of their grandmother’s traits. Indeed, the Polish grandmother is a force in the novel although she’s never actually present.
Her sister Aunt Theresa, a painter dabbling in landscapes, portraits and still life, has not been lucky with men either. Katerina learns of her aunt’s history, which is marked by the one disturbing incident when she is raped by the man she was destined to marry. It leaves her scarred for life and understandably unable to form any attachments later.
Laura Parigori, Maria’s mother-in-law, is for the most part in her own world, stuck in her past where she revelled as part of an elite Corfu society.
Old memories like sunken ships at the bottom of the sea suddenly rose up from the depths of her soul: hazy, trembling, a broken steering wheel, a bent rudder, masts jutting into space, the drowned treading water.
But somewhere, Laura is also unhappy with her present circumstances and is possibly rebelling inside – rebelling against her womanly fate, the desire for something else dominant, something impossible, something she won’t dare do.
Then there’s Andreas, the ship captain, a character introduced later in the book who epitomizes the ideas of independence, adventure and travel as he sails the world to exotic destinations, never rooted to one place or one person.
Sexual tension throbs throughout the book. Prior to her marriage, Maria’s sexual encounter with a farmer’s son is charged with electricity, Nikitas’ growing passion for Infanta is thwarted by things left unsaid, and Katerina, overwhelmed by her desire for David, is overcome by jealousy when she observes his closeness with Laura Parigori.
As Maria settles down into her new role of a wife and mother, we observe a perceptible shift in the relationship between the siblings. Their bond is as strong as ever and yet things are not the same, at least not since Maria’s altered situation.
Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.
Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own.
Will Maria find contentment in marriage and motherhood? Will the relationship between her and her husband transition into deep companionship when the first throes of romance are over? Will Infanta ever devote herself to one man? Will Katerina settle down with David or will her desire to travel the world take over?
Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.
As the novel progresses, the tempestuous Katerina will unravel the mystery of her mother’s best kept secret, will gain some perspective on the life changing decision of marriage, and will hole up in her room for a week so that she can calmly make a choice that will alter the course of her life. But whatever the future holds for the three sisters, Katerina acknowledges that “certainly those three summers will play a role in our lives. I remember that first day of that first summer when we bought our big straw hats.”