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Two Lives

Overview

William Trevor's astonishing range as a writer--his humor, subtlety, and compassionate grasp of human behavior--is fully demonstrated in these two short novels. In Reading Turgenev, a lonely country girl escapes her loveless marriage in the arms of a bookish young man. In My House in Umbria, a former madam befriends the other survivors of a terrorist bombing with surprising results. Nominated for the Booker Award.

William Trevor's astonishing range as a writer--his ...

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Overview

William Trevor's astonishing range as a writer--his humor, subtlety, and compassionate grasp of human behavior--is fully demonstrated in these two short novels. In Reading Turgenev, a lonely country girl escapes her loveless marriage in the arms of a bookish young man. In My House in Umbria, a former madam befriends the other survivors of a terrorist bombing with surprising results. Nominated for the Booker Award.

William Trevor's astonishing range as a writer--his humor, subtlety, and compassionate grasp of human behavior--is fully demonstrated in these two short novels. In "Reading Turgenev," a lonely country girl escapes her loveless marriage in the arms of a bookish young man. In "My House in Umbria," a former madam befriends the other survivors of a terrorist bombing with surprising results. Nominated for the Booker Award.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Books of the Century
...The reader is gently jolted into seeing beneath the beautifully composed surfaces the rippling complexities inherent in being human.
Books of the CenturyNew York Times
...[T]he reader is gently jolted into seeing beneath [the beautifully composed surfaces] the rippling complexities inherent in being human.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of our modern masters, Trevor (Fools of Fortune; Family Sins) is in top form with this exquisite pair of mirroring narratives. The first novella, ``Reading Turgenev,'' is the story of a woman who, denied love in her marriage, turns to a half-imaginary romance with a cousin who reads Turgenev to her in a cemetery; later, she desolately retreats into the shadowy world of her memories and desires. ``My House in Umbria'' is a first-person narrative about an aging writer of romances with a mysterious past whose fiction exhibits resolution and a kind of tranquility. A passenger on a train attacked by terrorists, the writer takes in a group of fellow survivors of the blast. Their healing becomes cathartic for her, bringing elements of her past to the surface. The two lives thus limned provide a balanced pair of portraits, one of a woman who avoids reality and the other of one who confronts it. Told in Trevor's graceful, evocative language, these narratives are further evidence of the author's sublime grasp of the complexities of human relationships.
Library Journal
Two Lives is two full-blown novels on isolated women, a vein familiar from Trevor's very elegant and very popular short stories. The first life, ``Reading Turgenev,'' is the uneventful one: marriage of convenience gone sour in small-town Ireland, glimpse of love in dying young man (who provides the Turgenev), willful retreat into loneliness. The second, ``My House in Umbria,'' is the eventful one: prostitute-turned-romance-novelist tears across three continents until slowed (and rendered reflective) by terrorist bomb. There is something labored about all this, especially the old-age frame for the first story and the chat about writing novels in the second. But Trevor's 12 novels (if we count this once) consistently manage to be both intelligent and moving. His loyal, literate following will be pleased by a two-for-one offer inviting exercises in comparison and contrast. -- John P. Harrington, Cooper Union, New York, NY
Library Journal
Two Lives is two full-blown novels on isolated women, a vein familiar from Trevor's very elegant and very popular short stories. The first life, ``Reading Turgenev,'' is the uneventful one: marriage of convenience gone sour in small-town Ireland, glimpse of love in dying young man (who provides the Turgenev), willful retreat into loneliness. The second, ``My House in Umbria,'' is the eventful one: prostitute-turned-romance-novelist tears across three continents until slowed (and rendered reflective) by terrorist bomb. There is something labored about all this, especially the old-age frame for the first story and the chat about writing novels in the second. But Trevor's 12 novels (if we count this once) consistently manage to be both intelligent and moving. His loyal, literate following will be pleased by a two-for-one offer inviting exercises in comparison and contrast. -- John P. Harrington, Cooper Union, New York, NY
New York Times Books of the Century
...[T]he reader is gently jolted into seeing beneath [the beautifully composed surfaces] the rippling complexities inherent in being human.
Kirkus Reviews
Trevor (Family Sins) provides genuine literary delight as well as book-buying value in this clever pairing of two novels under one title.The longer of the two, "Reading Turgenev," is also the more conventional—a somber tale of a woman who feigns madness in response to an oppressive "marriage of convenience." Mary Louise Dallon, the 21-year-old daughter of an impoverished Irish Protestant farmer, hopes to escape the boredom of country life by marrying "the only well-to-do Protestant for miles around." Elmer Quarry, almost twice Mary Louise's age, is a bald and paunchy tradesman who lives in town with his two mean and petty unmarried sisters. Not surprisingly, the marriage is doomed from the start, with Elmer unable to bring it to consummation and his sisters making daily life for Mary Louise a living hell. While kind and guilt-ridden Elmer retreats into the bottle, Mary Louise develops a wild passion for her sickly cousin who, on their secret trysts, reads her Russian novels. Their love remains chaste since the cousin dies suddenly, sending Mary Louise deeper into herself. Eventually, she's institutionalized, to be released decades later, all the while revisiting the scenes of her true love, the passages from Turgenev that stirred her soul. The narrator of "My House in Umbria" also escapes into literature—the formulaic romance novels she writes with much commercial success in her middle age. Her retreat from reality was occasioned by a life of hardship that's far more interesting than anything in her fiction. Sold at birth by her natural parents, her adoptive father began to abuse her sexually at an early age. Eventually, she becomes a prostitute in Africa, where shesaves enough money to buy a villa in Italy and begin writing her books. Fate intrudes in a rude way when she survives an unclearly motivated bombing on an Italian train, undermining the serenity she found in writing. Vastly different in style and setting, the two stories converge thematically, testifying to the range of Trevor's talent and the singularity of his vision.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140153729
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/1992
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 7.85 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

William Trevor

William Trevor is the author of twenty-nine books, including Felicia’s Journey, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and was made into a motion picture. In 1996 he was the recipient of the Lannan Award for Fiction. In 2001, he won the Irish Times Literature Prize for fiction. Two of his books were chosen by The New York Times as best books of the year, and his short stories appear regularly in the New Yorker. In 1997, he was named Honorary Commander of the British Empire. He lives in Devon, England.

Biography

"William Trevor is an extraordinarily mellifluous writer, seemingly incapable of composing an ungraceful sentence," Brooke Adams once wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Hailed by the New Yorker as "probably the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language," Trevor has also written over a dozen acclaimed novels as well as several plays. His characters are often people whose desires have been unfulfilled, and who come to rely on various forms of self-deception and fantasy to make their lives bearable.

Trevor was born in 1928 to a middle-class, Protestant family in Ireland. After graduating from Trinity College with a degree in history, he attempted to carve out a career as a sculptor. He moved to England in 1954 and exhibited his sculptures there; he also wrote his first novel, A Standard of Behavior, which was published in 1958 but met with little critical success. His second novel, The Old Boys, won the 1964 Hawthornden Prize for Literature and marked the beginning of a long and prolific career as a novelist, short-story writer and playwright.

Three of Trevor's novels have won the prestigious Whitbread Novel of the Year Award: The Children of Dynmouth, Fools of Fortune and Felicia's Journey. Felicia's Journey, about a pregnant Irish girl who goes to England to find the lover who abandoned her, was adapted for the screen in 1999 by director Atom Egoyan. Trevor, who has described himself as a short-story writer who enjoys writing novels, has also written such celebrated short stories as "Three People," in which a woman who murdered her disabled sister harbors an unspoken longing for the man who provided her with an alibi, and "The Mourning," about a young man who is pressed by political activists into planting a bomb (both from The Hill Bachelors).

Some critics have noted a change in Trevor's work over the years: his early stories tend to contain comic sketches of England, while his later ones describe Ireland with the elegiac tone of an expatriate. Trevor, who now lives in Devon, England, has suggested that he has something of an outsider's view of both countries. "I feel a sense of freshness when I come back [to Ireland]," he said in a 2000 Irish radio interview. "If I lived in, say, Dungarvan or Skibbereen, I think I wouldn't notice things."

As it stands, Trevor is clearly a writer who notices things, just as one of his characters notices "the glen and the woods and the seashore, the flat rocks where the shrimp pools were, the room she woke up in, the chatter of the hens in the yard, the gobbling of the turkeys, her footsteps the first marks on the sand when she walked to Kilauran to school" (The Story of Lucy Gault). Yet as Trevor told an interviewer for The Irish Times, "You mustn't write about what you know. You must use your imagination. Fiction is an act of the imagination." Trevor's fertile imagination captures, as Alice McDermott wrote in The Atlantic, "the terrible beauty of Ireland's fate, and the fate of us all -- at the mercy of history, circumstance, and the vicissitudes of time."

Good To Know

When Trevor was growing up, he wanted to be a clerk in the Bank of Ireland -- following in the footsteps of his father, James William Cox. Cox's career as a bank manager took the family all over Ireland, and Trevor attended over a dozen different schools before entering Trinity College in Dublin.

Trevor married his college sweetheart, Jane Ryan, in 1952. After the birth of their first son, Trevor worked for a time as an advertising copywriter in London. He also sculpted and worked as an art teacher, but gave up his sculpting after it became "too abstract."

In addition to the 1999 film Felicia's Journey, two other movies have been based on Trevor's works: Fools of Fortune (1990), directed by Pat O'Connor, and Attracta (1983), directed by Kieran Hickey. According to Trevor's agent, the plays Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria are also being adapted for the screen.

Trevor is also the author of several plays, most of which are not in print in the U.S. Works include Scenes from an Album, Marriages, and Autumn Sunshine.

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    1. Also Known As:
      William Trevor Cox (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      Devon, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 24, 1928
    2. Place of Birth:
      Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland
    1. Education:
      Trinity College, Dublin, 1950

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