Old lovers' reunion lacks magic of their youth
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In the two parts of Mary Gordon's new novel, we get to know protagonists Miranda and Adam, first as late middle-agers reuniting in Rome, and then, in flashback, as lovers full of youthful passion.
Miranda, now an epidemiologist and married mother of two grown sons, is the headstrong one. Adam is part of a more complicated family architecture, though he, too, is married and a parent. For all of his life he has been a musician. Music has brought him to Rome for a while, just as a business conference has brought Miranda there.
They haven't seen each other since Adam betrayed Miranda when they were young lovers. But a mutual friend who lives in Rome invites them both to her home while they're visiting. In the aftermath, Adam asks Miranda to join him on daily walks, during which they will talk and see one beautiful thing every day.
She agrees, and thus Ms. Gordon's novel unfolds in chapters organized around visits to famous buildings, parks and artworks of the city. In the autumn light, they talk about art, human nature, family and aging, while only carefully broaching 40-year-old memories and pain.
I'm probably not telling you anything you haven't figured out when I say that the book's title works on two levels. Miranda and Adam are indeed the loves of each other's youth, but the author also writes of the affection and wistfulness one has looking at the self who grows smaller in the rearview mirror. And as a soulful and spiritual writer, she is in many ways just the person to write such a book.
That said, two prime features of this novel -- its setup and its heroine -- proved killjoys for me. The daily meet-ups and guidebook visits of the sights of Rome would've been contrivance enough for any writer to overcome. (All I could think of was that Ms. Gordon wanted to spend time in Rome and have a tax-deductible reason to do so. Perhaps unfair. )
Beyond that, the conversations between the middle-aged Adam and Miranda come close to insufferable:
"Yes, that irrecoverable fall of darkness, like a knife blade. Just at this time of year: October. You just wanted to beg for it: a few more minutes of life outdoors, a bit more light, that precious sense of coldness, because soon you'd be called in, into warmth, into the smell of food, into safety, but at that moment it wasn't safety you wanted, it was danger, the risk of cold, to be there for that sudden drop of bluish black."
The part of me that wishes that language weren't so sloppily employed today ceded to the part that wants even erudite, highly educated characters to sound a little more like people I know rather than like scripted characters out of old Hollywood.
And then there was the problem of Miranda, privileged and principled and perhaps just a bit too much of both. The author sets us up to see these characters as emblems of the aging boomer generation.
Their love bloomed and died as the Vietnam War came along to point up their differences. Like Katie Morosky in "The Way We Were," Miranda is passionately political; like Hubbell Gardiner, Adam isn't.
But where Katie's humble roots softened the stridency of her convictions, Miranda's solidly upper-middle-class background and Wellesley education amplify a sense of snobbery that makes me wonder, finally, what drew sweet Adam -- then or now.
Much of that is mitigated by the flashbacks of their youthful love, a story that packs more drama and momentum than the autumnal walks in Rome. I found charm in Ms. Gordon's wise depictions of how Miranda and Adam were shaped by each other, their families and by a world that was changing too fast for everyone.
One of my favorite passages speaks of "the darkening" of the 1960s culture. In a few paragraphs, Gordon captures this shift that was felt by all who lived through it, like the moon passing in front of the sun.
"Was it because the music changed?" she writes. "That Dylan became ironic, angry, that the Beatles moved from vaudeville to LSD?"
This is one of the unanswerable questions that arise in a book that poses lots of them. Who were we, back when we were gathering our young legs beneath us? Who are we now, in the world and to each other? Imperfect as it is, "The Love of My Youth" provides us a nice leisurely space to wander -- and to wonder.
First Published April 24, 2011 12:00 am