I only read this by chance because I picked it up second-hand at a church booksale on a birthday visit to The (incomparable and wonderful) Wivenhoe Bookshop. (The church which is almost opposite the bookshop and its booksale were an unexpected bonus.) I had vague memories of seeing the film of this book as a child and remembered little but a faint awareness of dimly understood sexual tension and one character throwing champagne all over someone else. I was hopeful about reading the book but was delighted when I actually did.
In the nineteen fifties, a virtually single mother of five children (husband usually absent in Tibet studying the local botany, though clearly not that absent if he managed to father five kids) decides to take her spoilt brats to see the war graves of the Champagne region of France during the summer holidays so that they can witness what others have sacrificed. However, she ends up in hospital laid low by an infected horse-fly bite and the children are reluctantly allowed to stay at their hotel, Les Oeillets, unsupervised. The eldest girl, Joss, aged sixteen and on the brink of womanhood, is also confined to her room for some time with a stress-related affliction, so the younger ones, including the narrator, thirteen-year-old Cecil, are left to roam freely in the Eden-like orchard and surroundings of the hotel. Mlle Zizi and her hotel manager Madame Corbet are not keen to accept unchaperoned children, but they are persuaded by the enigmatic Eliot, an Englishman, seemingly Mlle Zizi's boyfriend, who takes the children under his wing.
The dull greyness of England, home and school as impoverished dependents of stolid but bossy Uncle William are contrasted with the summer heat of the green-gold orchards and river near Les Oeillets. The unleashed children make friends with the hotel staff, including the roguish, slovenly, exploited Paul, and become aware of new, sophisticated and exciting ways of life.
But this lotos-eating idyll is not all it seems and the charming and cosmopolitan Eliot is alternately warm and friendly to the children, then disconcertingly cold and distant. The first part of the book ranges back and forth in time and retrospective observations by Cecil, Joss and the prosaic but sharp Uncle William signpost a darker underlying truth which eventually has tragic consequences.
Eliot takes on the role of the children's protector 'as camouflage' : 'The children will give me a reason for being here,' he tells Mlle Zizi. And Uncle William (later) questions Eliot's choice of car, a blue and silver Rolls: 'Why choose one that stood out? Unless he wanted to stand out.'
When, after nearly two weeks, Joss eventually emerges from her room like a butterfly from a chrysalis, it becomes clear to everyone, and especially Mlle Zizi and Eliot, that Joss is not one of the children after all but a lovely nubile young woman who makes Mlle Zizi appear ageing and artificial. Eliot's interest in the family now has an added strand which creates a complicated tangle of attraction, jealousy and frustrated desire between the main characters.
Ambiguity pervades the book. Is Eliot good or bad? the children wonder. He's good fun and kind but he uses and manipulates them and Mlle Zizi shamelessly. However, he too is misled into thinking that the children will shield him, forgetting that they are also nosey and sharp-eyed, and in the end they are his undoing.
There is further ambiguity about who is a child and who is a grown-up. Mrs Grey, the children's mother is described as being like a child and she signally fails to fulfil her role as a parent. In her school uniform at the beginning of the novel, Joss appears to be a child, but later, to Mlle Zizi's dismay, she is a self-aware adult, learning to manipulate her new status with devastating consequences. Eliot appears paternal but is not. Both Cecil and Joss are at the in-between stage and they think that as they grow older they will lose their childish faults, such as gluttony for greengages, but they find that yet more failings arrive with adulthood.
The Greengage Summer is a blissful escapist read and although the subplot about Eliot's secret activities is a little bit Enid Blytonish, the child/adult relationships and underlying sexual tensions are brilliantly observed. Cecil is a wonderful narrator, herself growing up during the action of the novel and finding out just how complicated life and grown-ups can be.
I also owe thanks to this book on a practical level because it taught me the French word for greengages (Reine Claudes) and on holiday in France last summer, I found piles of green-gold greengages on sale in markets, often just brought from ordinary people's gardens. I'd always thought greeengages a rather sour green plum, but French greengages are just as Rumer Godden describes them:
'The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear-green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet.'
It must be something to do with France ... . See also Mrs B's post about this lovely book at the Literary Stew.