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The Love of My Youth

Mary Gordon

(Pantheon; US: May 2011)

The Love of My Youth explores a wish many of us harbor: the desire to reconnect with an old lover and, rather than try to resurrect a dead relationship, remediate its disastrous ending.


Adam and Miranda are both on the cusp of 60. Adam is a pianist teaching music at private school; Miranda is an epidemiologist. Both are well-off, worried about the environment, careful of their diets, concerned about aging’s depredations. 


In October of 2007, after nearly 40 years apart, they unexpectedly reunite in Rome. Miranda is in Italy for a medical conference, Adam so his daughter, Lucy, may study with a renowned violin teacher. Both are invited to a mutual friend’s apartment for dinner. Adam, who is of Italian descent and familiar with Rome, proposes a series of walks to Miranda, who warily accepts the invitation. 


Each walk has a specific destination, giving Gordon the opportunity to rhapsodize about Rome’s monuments, parks, and artworks. Adam and Miranda take in churches, sites, museums, sculpture. They argue about the role of beauty in a world lacking hope, drink Italian coffee and guiltily partake of Italian food. Gradually, with much editing on both sides, disclose their lives to one another. 


Born in 1948, Adam and Miranda come of age in the ‘60s. Adam, devoted to classical music, is repulsed by the era’s mores, but Miranda rapidly sheds her girdle in favor of radical causes. Both are idealists, Adam for beauty, Miranda for justice, and both would be dismayed by their later selves, still doing good in the world, but far from altering its axis. On one of their walks they wrestle with the notion of hope: theirs was a hopeful generation. They agree this cannot be said of their children. 


The prose is polished and graceful, soaring when describing the places and artwork Gordon clearly loves. The Chapel of San Carlino is “flooded with whiteness.  Above her head, a dome that is a honeycomb of pure white circles, interrupted by crosses, not a hint of ornament.  The arches are like waves of snow: they alternate, concave, convex.”


Initially I found Adam and Miranda’s age and attendant concerns refreshing: so much contemporary fiction focuses on younger characters. Unfortunately, my enjoyment turned to irritation. 


Adam and Miranda are well-intended, but who among us has the time and income for a chatty three-and-a-half weeks in Rome, freed from familial and work obligations, spouses conveniently a continent away? These two, rare creatures, languishing in some level of luxury in our dying economy, have enough time and money to hire personal trainers, wear silk, and wander Rome, arguing about Bernini’s intentions. hey worry almost comically over their health, admitting that neither will ever again consume a jelly doughnut.Both worry about embarrassing themselves as older individuals, particularly Miranda: Gordon makes some piercing observations about what it means to be a female in late middle age, long past any hope of youthful beauty. 


Certainly the wealthy are equally entitled to their concerns, but jelly doughnuts and the relative merits of Santa Cecilia struck this reader as a little much when we find ourselves in such difficult times. Yet one cannot legislate or condemn a writer’s choice of subject matter. May novels about the neurotic rich and their crises flourish!


The book moves between the present in Rome, back to the repressive early ‘50s and the heyday of the late ‘60s, from Adam and Miranda’s early, rapturous days to their growing apart, until a final, disastrous decision on Adam’s part abruptly ends their affair. We see not only Adam and Miranda’s story but their families’ as well—Adam’s parents are warm and welcoming, while Miranda’s are chilly and often bewildered. The couple is surrounded by a complex constellation of characters, grandparents, siblings, teachers, friends, each contributing to the novel’s complexity, rounding it into a world. 


The Love of My Youth isn’t a bad book: self-absorption isn’t admirable, nor is it criminal. In the end, I forgave Adam and Miranda their self-indulgence, for they tried their best, and accomplished what most of us cannot: they each made peace with a former lover.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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