It's the long hot summer of 1976 in England, and Cambridge University mathematician Spencer Little comes to spend the holidays working as a farm laborour in the Lake District, after an indiscretion at University during the previous term (the nature of which is revealed to the reader later in the novel), leaves him wanting to get far away from academic life for awhile. Enquiring at the farm of brothers Hartley and Thomas Dodds, he is taken on there, and works with them voluntarily in exchange for lodgings in a hut on the fellside, befriending Hartley's young daughter Alice and his wife Mary. He plans to work hard during the days, and then study hard on his thesis, his mathematical proofs, in the evenings. He knows he has shown promise of being one of the best in his field, but he must make a breakthrough with his research to secure his future at the University. He is shy, lonely and quiet and keeps himself very much to himself. He gradually forms a sweet friendship with young Alice, with him encouraging her in her ambitions to be a ballet dancer and to learn about mathematics, and her being the most welcoming of those he meets in the Lakes, sharing her ideas and activities with him. She finds a figure she can trust in him, who supports her dreams and is kind to her, less harsh than her father. After an event during which Spencer proves to be a hero, he is welcomed more readily by the villagers, but as the summer moves on, and Spencer meets others, events and people conspire against the outsider, as the novel moves towards it's conclusion.
This is a brilliant, atmospheric tale of loneliness, friendship, love, betrayal and tragedy. As well as being attracted by the storyline, I was also drawn to this novel in particular due to it being set predominantly in the Lake District. Beautifully and intelligently written, capturing everything from the rural setting in the Lakes, with those who have worked for generations on the land and are now struggling to make a living, to the fondness and friendship between Alice and Spencer, to the stifling summer heat and the pursuit of passion, and the suspicion, gossip and mistrust amongst the villagers of an outsider in their midst when events take a tragic turn. The book highlights the pure and logical nature of mathematical questions and answers, as opposed to the uncontrollable, heady nature of passionate love, the uncertainty of relationships, and the question of who we can and can't trust to stand by us. I loved this novel and couldn't put it down, though I read it with a growing sense of foreboding. I found Spencer an intriguing character, disappearing from the world he knows and finding himself when living this unfamiliar life, and I was deeply moved by what happened to him. I kept thinking about the novel and the characters after I had finished it.