Here’s my last installment (probably, anyway) of my personal Books of Summer. I’ve been cleaning off book shelves while I recover from surgery, and it’s been interesting for me to see what I’ve held onto unread for years, sometimes decades.
This week I polished off The Devastating Boys, a short story collection by Elizabeth Taylor. This Elizabeth Taylor is not the American movie star and beauty queen of the mid-twentieth century. The Elizabeth Taylor of The Devastating Boys is a well-respected but largely unknown English novelist. Kingsley Amis described her as “one of the best English novelists born in this century.” Here’s a link to an uninspiring Wikipedia bio and an insightful critique of her writing and times in The Atlantic.
I’d read Taylor’s In a Summer Season a while back, and I didn’t finish it. I thought it had dated too much, I couldn’t empathize with the characters, and I wasn’t in sync with the satire. So I was skeptical about this collection of short stories.
But I had no reason to be afraid. This collection is terrific. I enjoyed every story, and I’m so glad I didn’t recycle the book because I’d disliked the novel.
The lead story, “The Devastating Boys,” is the tale of a middle-aged, middle- or upper-class couple who live in the country outside of London. Their two trouble-free children are grown and gone away, so they decide to participate in a program that brings “disadvantaged youth” to the countryside for a two-week summer holiday. Harold is intrigued by the advisement that some of the children will be “colored.”
Laura, who seems to agree with most of what her husband says, goes along with Harold’s plans, but the project fills her with dread. She’s lonely, waiting for her grandchildren to be born, but she can’t imagine what these two young strangers and she will do all day. She doesn’t know what they eat or how to make them obey if they’re badly behaved. And the burden of their stay falls to her, because Harold will take the train into the city for work, leaving her alone with the two boys they’ve been assigned. She had pictured their getting girls.
The visit gets off to a bumpy start. One of the boys is obstreperous in the ride to the house, and the other lapses into weeping upon arrival. They are hostile or suspicious about everything, including each other. One bathes three times a day; the other, never. They disrupt the household. Laura is embarrassed that they ask if their home is a private house. Their energy is boundless, and they leave Laura exhausted.
But they are enchanted by the telephone, which they’ve never seen. When the wife of a man Harold wants to impress calls to invite Laura and the boys to tea, the boys answer and accept. Laura doesn’t want to go. She doesn’t like the woman, and she fears the boys will behave badly, which will reflect poorly on herself and Harold. But they go. The boys are delightful, and the tea is a success. The boys are also excellent mimics, and when they return home, they imitate the wife, charming Laura.
You can probably see where it goes. It’s a lovely story. In the end the boys really are devastating.
The stories in this collection are long on character and relatively short on plot. Taylor is excellent in creating snapshots in time of ordinary people in unusual or challenging situations. The endings of her stories are often somewhat ambiguous, melancholic, or haunting and reflect a clash of cultures or generations (In a Summer Season did that too; I just didn’t appreciate it as much there). If this is your catnip, you might enjoy this book, now out of print but still widely available used online.
What’s on your shelf?