Summer in February
By: Jonathan Smith
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
While making a speech attacking modern art, Sir Alfred Munnings is taken back 40 years to a special time and place. Major Evans, listening to him on the radio, is also flooded with memories, and wonders how everything changed in both their lives.
I first heard of this novel because I found out that Dan Stevens was going to be star in the movie adaptation that came out earlier this year (posted the trailer over here). The premise of the novel sounded interesting and after some coaxing from a fellow book blogger, I picked up a copy for myself to read 😉 Contains some spoilers ahead!
While the incident in the description was really interesting–Sir Alfred Munnings making a speech and viciously attacking modern art–the flashback and start of that segment of the story started off a little slowly. While it’s perhaps a little slow, it does introduce the characters–and the feel of these characters–and the setting of this novel quite nicely. I know nothing about the art communities that existed in the United Kingdom during this period so I thought it was especially fascinating.
The prose is very interesting and quite wonderful, like a painting in itself. You could sort of feel the tensions running beneath the surface; I initially wondered if this was done on purpose because of Alfred’s speech at the beginning of the novel or if the trailer sort of seeped into my unconscious, hence my interpretation of the novel, but you could feel the struggles running within each of the characters. I could especially feel it between Gilbert and everyone else in the novel; unlike the others, Gilbert is not an artist and although he holds this sense of wonder about the world, his concerns are more practical. I think from all of the characters, I connected with him the most because I could feel his suffering resonate between the pages.
The characters themselves were very interesting. Alfred was a little scary to be honest with his genius and unpredictability; you gain a sense of his brilliance and his perspective on art and his approach on the world but he also has quite a temper and recklessness to go with his personality. Florence…I’ll talk a bit more about her in the next paragraph but she’s bright with an air of mystery around her and is intrigued by the world around her. As I mentioned, I connected with Gilbert the most and felt quite sorry for him. He obviously has his own dreams but he’s also quite burdened by sadness from his own past. I thought Laura Knight was quite ahead of her time and a character to relate to with her desire to make headway into the art world and her approach to her work. She doesn’t fit in the standard Edwardian manners of the time, which was interesting.
The novel is also provides a fascinating look into art, the mind of the artist, the perspectives on art and the differences between artists. You could easily extrapolate quite a bit about the personalities and work ethics about different artists just by reading about the way Harold Knight works compared to Alfred Munnings and Laura Knight. I wish I had kept notes on some of the sections on the philosophy of art because it’s quite interesting and thoughtful.
The tragedy is immensely sad, some of which could have been avoided. Gilbert was too slow in his courting Florence, resulting in her marrying Alfred instead. Gilbert was also too repressed, too shy in expressing his feelings towards Florence initially, which also made it difficult for her to figure out her own feelings and how to approach him, how to decide. Alfred is many things but I think one of his gravest contributions to this tragedy was his overall impressions of Florence: he was fascinated by Florence like everyone else but more like a muse than anything else, a girl to paint as he mentioned in his speech. I don’t think he had any idea who Florence was as a person. As for Florence…to be honest I’m still trying to figure out what was really going on with her during the periods that Gilbert was away; from all of the characters I feel like we know Florence the least, despite of the few sections of the book coming from her perspective. Her actions during her wedding night indicates that there was a lot more going on with Florence underneath the surface than I think the text could ever reveal.
So yeah, Summer in February can be beautiful but also heartbreaking. The timing between characters, the idea of attaching oneself to another so quickly, of feelings said and unsaid, of living life to the fullest…they all play a role in this novel with the characters. There’s some dialogue and narrative lines here and there that were really quite haunting and heart-wrenching. The reader knows from the first few pages that there is going to be a major tragedy mentioned in the story but the emotional impact is something else, sort of left me just…haunted.
Summer in February is overall a wonderful novel with a lot of themes brewing underneath the surface. It might not be for everyone as the narrative sometimes feels as though it’s moving rather slow but there’s so much going on internally within these characters–a sort of “fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” thing–that it was really just very fascinating and enjoyable to read.