Poet W.S. Merwin's career started off on a fairy-tale note in 1948, as he tells it in his new memoir, "Summer Doorways." At 21, fresh out...

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“Summer Doorways: A Memoir”
by W.S. Merwin
Shoemaker & Hoard, 216 pp., $24

Poet W.S. Merwin’s career started off on a fairy-tale note in 1948, as he tells it in his new memoir, “Summer Doorways.”

At 21, fresh out of Princeton, he boards a ship for Europe with his wife, Dorothy, to work as a private tutor. As Merwin prepares to leave, an editor from the Hudson Review brings him the proofs of Merwin’s article to correct on the voyage and send back. What a heady task! “[T]he delivery of the page proofs at that moment made me feel, as we inched through the jammed side streets, heading for our wharf across the East River, that I was really a writer.”

Merwin’s wealthy employer is Alan Stuyvesant, a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the 17th-century governor of New York. Through him, Merwin meets Maria Antonia da Braganza of the Portuguese royal family. He is invited, while in Europe, to join her in Portugal and tutor her children, too. What could be more perfect for an aspiring poet from a middle-class American family than to travel, meet important people, live in a luxurious environment and have time to write?

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Of course this is a real-life story, not a fairy tale, and in Merwin’s subtle telling of it, cracks appear right from the beginning. His “rash, unconsidered” marriage is already strained. His exhilaration over life abroad — starting at a villa on the French Riviera — soon will be disturbed by the alcoholism of his host, the suicide attempt of an acquaintance and the hinted-at distance between Merwin and his wife as they explore post-World War II Europe.

Merwin’s gracious tone and unruffled observations of people and events make this a finely nuanced memoir, full of the pleasures he found in living and recalling his unfolding adventure. I loved the strange accounts from his youth of “ghost houses”: two occasions when he saw and minutely recalled houses that in fact were no longer there. And the fablelike account of the ancient peasant woman in Europe who had never bathed in her life. When finally forced to — on someone else’s notion of what was good for her — she promptly died of pneumonia.

Yet the conventions of the memoir constrain the story. Merwin’s inner world is mostly left out. Despite my admiration for Merwin’s deftness with the genre, the book left me a little unsatisfied. I wondered about the story between the lines, the essential things: What about Merwin’s poetry (he would win the Yale Younger Poets Award just a few years later), his relationship with Dorothy and his own emotional life? These are left, presumably, to future biographers.

Reviewed by Sheila Farr

“A Wedding in December”
by Anita Shreve
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $25.95

Seven old schoolmates from the Kidd Academy in Maine reunite 27 years later for the marriage of two of the group in Anita Shreve’s bittersweet 12th novel, “A Wedding in December.” As she has in previous novels (notably, “Eden Close,” “The Pilot’s Wife,” “Fortune’s Rocks”), Shreve uses an old house as the source for story material. This time the building is a white clapboard turn-of-the-century inn located in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Forty-four-year-old Nora Laski, widow to an irascible Nobel level poet, owns the inn where two of her former prep-school classmates, Bill Ricci and Bridget Kennedy, plan to marry during the winter of 2001. The place, populated by ghosts of memories and emotional secrets, will change several lives as the wedding guests recall “missed opportunities, lost chances, and mild regret.”

It appears that Nora is doing Bill and Bridget a favor by hosting the hastily arranged ceremony and reception. They are dealing with Bill’s family estrangement and Bridget’s serious breast-cancer crisis. But Nora has ulterior motives. She harbors an unrequited love for one of the four other friends, Harrison Branch, a married, successful publisher who now lives in Canada.

Others attending the tumultuous weekend are an unmarried history teacher, an internationally respected pianist and a bombastic New York City business magnate. One member of the original academy contingent, baseball scholarship student Stephen Otis, died during a mysterious incident that haunts a major portion of the novel.

Hovering over the entire weekend is the emotional fallout from 9/11. Shreve balances the traumatic consequences of that event against current personal turmoils. She draws on another historic tragedy, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, harbor explosion of 1917, to develop parallels of how “calamity changed everything.” History teacher Agnes O’Connor imagines an entire novel set during the Halifax disaster while she wrestles with whether or not to drop a bombshell revelation during the nuptial proceedings. Jerry Leyden, the New York businessman, provides a vivid eyewitness account of Ground Zero, observed from his office building.

Eventually, each of the participants in “A Wedding in December” discovers the value of friendships redeemed and the future possibilities of enduring love.

Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak

“The Days of Abandonment”
by Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions, 188 pp., $14.95

It is an old, old story.

A man departs his marriage without warning or explanation, leaving his stunned wife to fend for herself and their young children.

So what is it about “The Days of Abandonment” that recasts this paradigmatic tale so urgently and with the force of a blow to the gut?

Start with the raw anguish of Olga, the novel’s rejected wife. And the unsparing ability of Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym for the Italian author of this international best seller, which has just recently been made into a film) to hypnotically capture an intelligent, sophisticated woman’s implosion under pressure.

In most accounts of marital meltdown, ditched spouses are granted some hurt and rage — but not at the expense of their children, or their sanity. But Ferrante details a more primal response to abandonment, when Italian writer and at-home mom Olga is discarded by her professor husband, Mario.

As Olga slips into a vortex of blind pain, Ferrante’s vertiginous prose (sharply translated into English by Ann Goldstein) keeps us tumbling down with her. She tries at first to woo back Mario and maintain her domestic and maternal equilibrium. But soon her spouse’s indifference, and the infidelity behind his betrayal, quite undoes Olga.

Such mundane problems as a broken phone turn into unbearable disasters. And a desperate plea for comfort backfires, in the humiliating seduction of a near-stranger.

As “Days of Abandonment” reaches its nightmarish peak, it brings to mind the horrific Roman Polanski film “Repulsion.” This riveting novel suggests that, within many a modern marriage, there’s a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.

Reviewed by Misha Berson