William Trevor: My House in Umbria (1991) Novella and Movie

My House in Umbria is one of two longer novellas contained in the book Two Lives. The other one is called Reading Turgenev. I’ve had the book for a while and since Mel u’s Irish Short Story Week has been prolonged, I decided to read it now. William Trevor is one of those authors I always wanted to read more of.

My House in Umbria is a surprisingly somber and complex novella. As lovely as the setting is, a villa located near Siena, there are some dark undercurrents, nasty secrets and a back story unlike any other to discover.

The story is told in the very unique voice of Mrs. Emily Delahunty. Delahunty is one of a few names she has chosen for herself. She is a romance novelist with a more than troubled past. Sold by her parents as a child, abused by her step-father and later abandoned by a lover and stranded in a hotel in Africa where she meets Quinty. Quinty isn’t any less mysterious or adventurous than Emily and this strange couple forms an interesting alliance. At the beginning of the story they live in the afore-mentioned villa in Umbria. Surprisingly Emily’s novels have brought money and fame and she lives a comfortable life. She is haunted by the past but her incredible imagination helps her to flee to nicer places whenever the clouds get to dark. And there is always alcohol as well, to help circumnavigate the roughest cliffs.

At the beginning of the story she boards a train to Milano. The wagon she is sitting in is blown up and most of the passengers die. Only Emily, a young German man who loses his girlfriend, an old general who loses his daughter and Aimée a little American  girl whose whole family dies, survive.

After a stay at a hospital, Emily invites the three people to stay with her in her house in Umbria. The calm and peacefulness of the country-side, the beauty of the house, will help them recover, she hopes.

These four highly traumatized and maimed people share some moments of great intimacy, – reminiscent of the group in Enchanted April – until the day Aimee’s uncle announces that he will come and fetch the girl.

What follows is equally sad and dramatic and what little peace these wounded  people  have acquired is shattered for good. The idea that a man she has never seen before and who seems distant and unlikable, comes to get the girl who still suffers from amnesia is particularly painful for the three other victims.

Mrs Delahunty sounds like an unreliable narrator for most of the book but she isn’t. Some of the things she tells sound unbelievable but they turn out to be true, only, she mixes things she imagines with things that happened. She has a a habit of inventing back stories for each and every person she meets. It’s not surprising she has become a novelist. Hearing her we think she would have had what it takes to write great literature, yet she chose to write romances as a means to escape the memory of her past. Not only was she abused but it seems that before discovering that she is a writer, she was an escort girl in Africa.

It’s not often that I watch a movie based on a book right after having finished the book but I watched My House in Umbria the day after finishing Trevor’s novella.

I really enjoyed how the movie brings to life the great character of Mrs Delahunty. Maggie Smith is amazing in this role. They way she plays this very kind, vulnerable and sad woman is touching and funny at the same time. The movie changed the ending completely but stayed true to the rest of the story. It underlines and enhances the characters and episodes in the novella and I would say I liked it even better. Others may prefer the darker novella; I liked the way the movie interpreted some facts and changed a few others. In any case they work extremely well together. What the movie offers, apart from great acting, is enchanting pictures of a beautiful landscape and some truly comical moments when the worlds of Mrs Delahunty and Aimée’s uncle clash. It’s one of my favourite movies so far this year. But don’t get me wrong, the book is excellent as well.

It’s rare that a main character in a book is so memorable but I’m beginning to think that creating great characters is one of William Trevor’s strengths.


20 thoughts on “William Trevor: My House in Umbria (1991) Novella and Movie

  1. Goodness this story sounds like a gut-wrencher. I don’t know if I could read it. I may have to check out the movie though. I’m a huge fan of Maggie Smith.

    • I expected the book to be good but must say the movie really was a pleasant surprise. I was afraid they would turn it into something like A Good Year. That did not work for me at all.

  2. I meant to read this story after finishing Reading Turgenev but had to return the book to the library and didn’t get to it. For some reason I’ve forgotten about it despite enjoying the other story in the book. Thanks for the reminder. Sounds like the strength of his female characters carries over to this story as well.

    • I’m certainly glad that you mention that the other one is as good. I wasn’t sure whether or when to read it but I have the copy here, so will do it sooner or later.
      I read a lot of his short stories but not many novels, the female charcaters are always very strong.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! I would love to watch the movie version. It looks very fascinating from your description! I was also looking forward to reading your thoughts on ‘Reading Turgenev’. Didn’t you read it? Turgenev is one of my favourite Russian authors 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. Try to find the movie, it’s absolutely grear.
      I didn’t read the second story, both have 160 pages, they are rather short novels.
      But I will. I’m not so sure how much it says about Turgenev. I didn’t know he was one of your favourite authors. I have some of his short stories and liked them a lot.

  4. I love Maggie Smith–this sounds worth reading just so I can watch the movie after–but I do very much like William Trevor and would like to read something by him. I’ve read a couple of books but it’s been far too long ago. Did you read the other story in this book? I’ll have to see if my library has it now.

    • I’m not sure if this isn’t one of those cases where you could start by watching the movie. they sort of add to each other and that’s what I really liked as well.
      I have liked each and every of her movies but she outdid herself in this one. She is so good, touching and funny.
      I haven’t read the other story yet. They have each 160pages, it felt much more like a novel than a novella. I’ll read it sooner or later as well.

  5. I trust you and Guy but without this trust, I wouldn’t consider reading it. I don’t like when a character happens to pile up all kinds of miseries.
    But that’s what interests me in blogging; being tempted by books I would have neglected without a fellow blogger’s nudge.

  6. ow…I really want to know what happen next!!! will aimee go to her uncle or the others stop her…Glad to know there is a movie from this book, it will be in my waiting list after Napola. I still waiting for other movie to finish downloading (I know I am watching movie illegally…there’s no other way.)

    If you have to choose between the book and the movie, which one will it be?

    • I would say the movie. The interesting thing is that the ending of the book is in the movie as well… It’s a dream of Mrs Delahunty but in the movie the end is different. But now, if you watch the movie, pay attention to her dream towards the end and you know how the book finishes. The people have also much more drastic wounds in the book. The young German loses his arm. And there is no solution to the crime while in the movie there is a surprising solution.
      Now it’s up to you. I’m curious to see whether you will like it. I think she is amazing.

  7. Years and years ago I started reading the huge tome that is William Trevor’s collected short stories. He’s an amazing writer but sooooo bittersweet and often pretty disturbing too. I didn’t finish the book in the end, but I would really like to try Trevor again, now I’m 15 years older and sort of wiser. Big fan of Maggie Smith, too!

    • I think he is amazing. This one has a few quite distirbing moments, less even because of shocking events as because of the matter of fact way Emily speaks about them. I loved her character and the movie is excellent at capturing it. She is such a touching person, kind and honest. There is this one tiny incident, it’s nothing really (in the book and movie) which is heartbreaking. Because it happens to her of all people.
      If you want a more joyful ending, I’d recommend the movie. It captures the novella without its pessimism.

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