The jacket copy calls Indian Summer “one of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature,” so I took the bait, despite skepticism. I have read William Dean Howells before and he wasn’t charming. But for once the jacket copy approached accuracy. (Maybe that’s one thing I like so much about the New York Review Books editions: you pretty much can tell a book by its handsome cover.) Indian Summer is honestly delightful.
There are certain pre-sold audiences for this book. Italophiles, of course — it is set in Florence, in 1885, so you get a wonderful portrait of expat sociability 125 years ago, plus enough weather and topographical details for any armchair tourist. Fan of the 19th century that I am, I cherished the details of behavior, especially Howells‘ keen appreciation of women and their wardrobes. Fans of Henry James might like Indian Summer, too. It is not as dense as James, not as aristocratic: in fact at one point the characters are discussing themselves as if they were in a James novel and they have this to say: “Don’t you think we ought to be rather more of the great world for that? I hardly feel up to Mr. James. I should have said Howells. Only nothing happens in that case!” Yes, self-referential fiction, in 1885, who knew? For me the big difference between Howells and James is that Europe is not a character in this book, it is a setting. An important one, but the characters and emotions of Indian Summer are transplantable in both location and time.
Yes, it felt very contemporary. The main character is Theodore Colville, an American of forty-one who, having just ended a successful newspaper career in Indiana, has returned to Florence where he once studied architecture. Also, he was jilted in Florence twenty years earlier and has never married. Naturally, on this return visit he encounters a woman: in fact, two. One is Lina Bowen, the pretty and clever best friend of the girl who jilted him. She is now a widow, educating her daughter in Europe. There is also her protégée, the magnificent Imogene Graham, the classic American girl abroad.
Do I have to tell you that a love triangle results? What’s endearing here, though, is Colville. This is a real guy. He’s a guy you know and probably like a lot. He worries about dressing correctly for parties (really funny passages about him thinking about shaving off his beard). He worries about his weight — 182 pounds, if I remember correctly. He is funny, ironic, rueful. Howells sometimes mocks his masculine denseness but we always sympathize with him, especially in the part of the book when he gets involved in a hectic social whirl and cannot stand the lack of sleep. So inglorious! So human. The Indian Summer of the title is, of course, his. Howells focuses on how the different ages process emotion differently. Indian summers, by definition, don’t last. But it’s a comedy. Things work out, though Howells keeps you on the hook until the end. Very satisfying.