A Summons to Memphis
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3.66 / 5

"A Summons to Memphis" Summary

By Peter Taylor

fiction | 209 pages | Published in NaN

One of the most celebrated novels of its time, the Pulitzer Prize winner A Summons to Memphis introduces the Carver family, natives of Nashville, residents, with the exception of Phillip, of Memphis, Tennessee.During the twilight of a Sunday afternoon in March, New York book editor Phillip Carver receives an urgent phone call from each of his older, unmarried sisters. They plead with Phillip to help avert their widower father's impending remarriage to a younger woman. Hesitant to get embroiled in a family drama, he reluctantly agrees to go back south, only to discover the true motivation behind his sisters' concern. While there, Phillip is forced to confront his domineering siblings, a controlling patriarch, and flood of memories from his troubled past.Peter Taylor is one of the masters of Southern literature, whose work stands in the company of Eudora Welty, James Agee, and Walker Percy. In A Summons to Memphis, he has composed a richly evocative story of revenge, resolution, and redemption and given us a classic work of American literature.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

After his father's remarriage, a man reflects on the family's past and the events that led to their move to Memphis.


"A Summons to Memphis" is a novel written by Peter Taylor and published in 1986. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1987 and is a compelling exploration of family dynamics, betrayal, and the complexities of human relationships. Set in Nashville, Tennessee, the story delves into the lives of the Carver family, focusing on the tension and conflicts that arise when family members are forced to confront their past and make difficult decisions about their future.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview and Setting

The novel is set in the mid-20th century in Nashville, Tennessee. The Carver family, led by the patriarch George Carver, is a prominent and respected family in the community. The story unfolds as the Carver siblings, Phillip and Betsy, are summoned back to Memphis by their elderly father, who has remarried after their mother’s death. The summons sets off a chain of events that forces the siblings to confront long-buried family secrets and grapple with the consequences of their father's actions.

Main Characters

The novel features several main characters, each playing a significant role in the unfolding of the story.

George CarverThe patriarch of the Carver family, a respected figure in the community.
Phillip CarverGeorge's son, a successful New York City businessman, and the novel's protagonist.
Betsy CarverPhillip's sister, an unmarried woman with a strong sense of duty towards her family.
FatherThe stepmother of Phillip and Betsy, who becomes a central figure in the family's conflicts.

Summary of Different Story Points over Chapters

Chapters 1-3: The Summons

The novel opens with the unexpected summons received by Phillip and Betsy to return to Memphis. The news comes as a surprise to the siblings, who have built lives of their own outside of Tennessee. As they make preparations to comply with their father's request, they grapple with mixed emotions and a sense of obligation to their family.

Chapters 4-6: Family Tensions

Upon their arrival in Memphis, Phillip and Betsy are greeted by their father and his new wife, the Father. Tensions quickly arise as the siblings become acquainted with the new dynamic in their father's life. The family's interactions are fraught with underlying resentments and unresolved issues, leading to friction and unease.

Chapters 7-9: Unearthing Family Secrets

As the story progresses, long-held family secrets start to surface, causing further turmoil within the Carver family. Phillip and Betsy are forced to confront the implications of their father's decisions and the impact these revelations have on their own lives. The past resurfaces, challenging the family's unity and stability.

Chapters 10-12: Confrontations and Resolutions

The final chapters of the novel see the Carver family confronting their past and attempting to find resolutions to the conflicts that have plagued them. The characters navigate through feelings of betrayal, forgiveness, and the complexities of familial relationships. Ultimately, they must decide how to move forward and reconcile with the past.

Main Events

  1. The unexpected summons to Memphis sets the stage for the unfolding family drama.
  2. Tensions and conflicts arise as Phillip and Betsy come face to face with their father's new life and his wife, the Father.
  3. Long-held family secrets are unearthed, casting a shadow over the family's relationships.
  4. Confrontations and attempts at resolution lead to pivotal moments of decision and reconciliation for the Carver family.

Themes and Insights

Family Dynamics and Betrayal

The novel delves deeply into the complexities of family dynamics, exploring the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and the impact of past actions on present relationships. The Carver family's internal struggles shed light on the intricate web of emotions and tensions that often characterize familial bonds.

The Burden of the Past

"A Summons to Memphis" also delves into the weight of the past and its enduring influence on the present. The unresolved conflicts and long-kept secrets serve as a reminder of the lasting impact of historical decisions and the challenges of breaking free from the shadows of the past.

Forgiveness and Redemption

The novel explores the themes of forgiveness and redemption, presenting the characters with the opportunity to come to terms with their past and seek reconciliation. It delves into the complexities of forgiveness and the transformative power of letting go of grudges and resentments.

Reader's Takeaway

Readers of "A Summons to Memphis" are taken on a poignant journey through the intricacies of family relationships, the weight of the past, and the transformative potential of forgiveness. The novel offers valuable insights into the human experience, prompting readers to reflect on their own familial dynamics and the significance of confronting the past to shape a more meaningful future.


In conclusion, "A Summons to Memphis" by Peter Taylor is a compelling and insightful exploration of family, betrayal, and the enduring impact of the past. Through its richly developed characters and thought-provoking themes, the novel provides a captivating portrayal of the complexities of human relationships and the transformative power of forgiveness. Peter Taylor's masterful storytelling and evocative narrative offer readers a memorable and thought-provoking literary experience.

A Summons to Memphis FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'A Summons to Memphis'?

    The genre of 'A Summons to Memphis' is literary fiction.

  2. Who is the author of 'A Summons to Memphis'?

    The author of 'A Summons to Memphis' is Peter Taylor.

  3. What is the plot of 'A Summons to Memphis'?

    The novel follows the story of a man named Phillip who is summoned back to his childhood home in Memphis by his two sisters. It explores family dynamics, the South, and the complexities of sibling relationships.

  4. Is 'A Summons to Memphis' part of a series?

    No, 'A Summons to Memphis' is a standalone novel and is not part of a series.

  5. When was 'A Summons to Memphis' first published?

    'A Summons to Memphis' was first published in 1986.