Peter Taylor

A Summons to Memphis

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A Summons to Memphis Summary

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A Summons to Memphis is a historical novel by American author Peter Taylor, first published in 1986 by Alfred A. Knopf. It tells the story of Phillip Carver, an editor living in New York City, whose spinster sisters, Betsy and Josephine, summon him back to his native Memphis, Tennessee, where they hope to enlist his help in discouraging their father from marrying a younger woman. From this central event, Phillip recalls various episodes from his life, offering a snapshot of a unique family and the complicated ties that bind them. A Summons to Memphis won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Fortysomething Phillip lives and works in Manhattan, lightyears away from his Southern upbringing and the reverberations of all the attendant Carver family drama. His mother died two years ago, and Betsy and Josephine remain in Memphis in close proximity to their father. Alex, Phillip’s childhood friend, still lives in Memphis as well but keeps in touch with Phillip, informing his old friend that he fears how Betsy and Josephine would ever react if Mr. Carver remarried.

This comment prompts Phillip to remember two elderly widowers he knew in his childhood. Their children schemed and connived to prevent them from getting married again, even going so far as having one of them institutionalized. Alex sees no reason to think that Betsy and Josephine would behave any differently.

Mr. Carver starts dating again. At first, Betsy and Josephine handle it well. But once they begin following him around on his nights out, Phillip grows a bit more concerned. However, his own girlfriend, Holly, recently left him, so more pressing matters occupy him.

Then, Mr. Carver meets a woman he wants to marry. This is all it takes for Betsy and Josephine to snap. First Betsy, then Josephine, calls Phillip in New York, begging him to come home and talk sense into their father.

As Phillip prepares to go back to Memphis, he recalls the events of his early life. He had been born and spent his earliest years in Nashville. But after Mr. Carver’s longtime business partner betrayed him, Phillip’s father abandoned the business and moved the family to Memphis. This was 1931, during the Great Depression, and life was lean and difficult, both within and outside of the Carver family’s walls.

Betsy was nineteen years old at the time. She had a devoted boyfriend, Wyant Brawley. Everyone assumed that the two would marry, yet Betsy made no formal announcement, likely waiting until after Josephine’s social debut later in the year. Wyant even moved with the Carvers from Nashville to Memphis, but after a seemingly random incident, in which Betsy and Wyant stayed for a few extra minutes by themselves at a restaurant, Mr. Carver responded with fury. Wyant subsequently stopped coming around.

Josephine, too, had a boyfriend, Clarkson Manning. During a dinner at the Carver house, Clarkson made the offhand comment that he was distantly related to a man named Lewis Shackleford. That was all it took for Mr. Carver to banish him as well.

Then, both sisters—alone and resigned to their fates as spinsters—became real estate agents and bought homes in town.

The Carver siblings once had another brother, Georgie. Georgie claimed the military drafted him to fight in the Second World War, but really, he enlisted voluntarily. He died in battle. This tragedy certainly didn’t help Mrs. Carver, who also didn’t weather the move from Nashville to Memphis very well. She was already withdrawing from life after the move, and Georgie’s death made her isolation complete.

In the present, Phillip arrives back in Memphis on the day of Mr. Carver’s wedding. His father is happy to see him, but when they arrive at the church, they learn the wedding is off. The bride left a note for Mr. Carver; she doesn’t want to go through with the wedding. Mr. Carver, Phillip, and Alex all suspect that the sisters’ meddling is to blame.

In shock, they return to the Carver home, where movers have parked a van outside. Betsy and Josephine are in the process of returning to the house to keep closer tabs on their father.

One day, while the Carvers are on vacation at a mountain resort, they encounter Lewis Shackleford at the local restaurant. It is revealed that Lewis is Mr. Carver’s old business partner, the one who changed the family’s lives and fortunes by prompting their move to Memphis. During the impromptu reunion, Lewis and Mr. Carver behave as if nothing happened between them—much to the surprise and ire of the Carver children.

At the same restaurant, Clara Price sits with her family at a nearby table. Phillip once dated her and even considered marrying her at one point. As he reflects on their relationship, it dawns on him that he never introduced Clara to his family, even though the two had been quite serious.

Phillip, Betsy, and Josephine unite in preventing their father from reestablishing a friendship with Lewis. Later, when Mr. Carver states his intention to go visit Lewis, Betsy tells him Lewis has died.

But Phillip’s relationship with his father grows stronger. Phillip assures Mr. Carver that they are allies, and the two start talking on the phone once a week after Phillip’s return to New York.

The next spring, with his health failing, Mr. Carver suffers a stroke and dies. Phillip and Holly reconcile. In light of her own father’s recent illness and death, she and Phillip form a deeper and more solid bond. Their life together proceeds, miles away from Memphis.