Three Summers

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

First published in Greece in 1946, THREE SUMMERS by Margarita Liberaki (later translated into English by Karen Van Dyck) paints a portrait of pre-WW II Athens, a time when the city's suburbs were still bucolic, overflowing with trees, grapevines and flowers. Those who could afford it, like the upper-class family at the heart of the novel, kept horses on their property and rode them every day, across the fields and up into the hills.

The heroines of Liberaki's now-famous book--it is required reading in Greek and Cypriot public schools--are three sisters, Maria, Infanta and Katerina. They live with their mother, aunt and grandfather on a Chekhov-like estate. Their banker father visits from time to time, but not with the woman he abandoned the family for. The family has survived a second scandal: the grandfather's wife, known as The Polish Grandmother, ran off with a "musician who was passing through Athens on a concert tour" and was never heard from again.

The sisters carry the burden of proving the family's honor and respectability. They are expected to remain virgins until marriage, act like ladies in public, obey their elders. The sisters chafe under these restrictions and even rebel against them--up to a certain point. Katerina, for example, is tempted to run off the way The Polish Grandmother did, but in the end she sticks close to home and contemplates marrying David, a young astronomer who lives down the road and has a Jewish mother.

THREE SUMMERS has a strong female sensibility. Romance is always on the mind of the sisters, but they also spend considerable time digging in their gardens (while wearing big straw hats and arguing about birds, bees and flowers). The outside world rarely intrudes upon them, except for a fire which breaks out one summer and rages through the countryside. The book is mostly a coming-of-age tale: dreamy, sensitive, evocative. The sisters grow up before us, begin to change, shed their adolescent skins, turn into women.

They also begin to encounter adult problems: divorce, sexual abuse, even abortion. Shadows fall over their idyllic, sun-filled world, but Liberaki doesn't let her story turn completely dark. These are her final words: "It's hard to tell what Maria's fate will be, the same goes for Infanta and me. But certainly those three summers will play a role in our lives. I remember that first summer when we bought our big straw hats."

(New York Review Books,