The Love of My Youth, by Mary Gordon

This 2011 work begins as a wonderful novel. Miranda and Adam, now close to sixty, were lovers forty years ago. Then they separated, marrying others and raising children. Now, both are visiting Rome and have been brought back together by a friend, whereupon they immediately relate to one another. And to their past together.

The wonder comes from their mutual doubt, their mutual worry. Can they cross together that forty-year chasm? Are they even now being disloyal to their current spouses? Can they get over the hurt that their separation caused? Where should this re-discovered relationship now go? What of the integrity they have stood for all their lives?

Simultaneously, they are living today, and they are living forty years ago, living one life externally and one life internally. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, caught by an author who is mature herself and understands exactly how one’s mind and one’s emotions might react to such circumstances. Some readers might even be intrigued by another question: will they or won’t they? The reader who knows Mary Gordon, however, will expect something more.

Then the novel shifts gears. Adam persuades Miranda to meet with him for an hour or two every day so he can show her, and help her better appreciate, the sights of Rome, a city with its own memorable past. It is really, of course, because he is still intrigued by her; and, despite each of their current marriages, he wishes to explore the possibilities that have arisen from their meeting.

Whereupon, each time this couple meets, they banter about Rome’s history and art and the people they encounter on the street, and the reader receives mini-portraits of moments in Rome’s past. It is continually interesting banter, even as the couple deliberately avoids any personal conversation about their own past, not least because of their own existing marriages. And yet…that past is always in the air. But the result, even so, is a lack of drama. Because their relationship never advances, because they seek to avoid at all costs what in today’s literary world might seem to be an inevitable outcome.

Meanwhile, author Gordon interrupts the daily Roman tour to flash back to the past when Adam and Miranda were lovers. Not how they became lovers, because there was no drama there, simply an immediate realization by both. Instead, it is how they accommodated their love to each other’s careers, his as a promising student pianist that required long hours of private study and hers as an advocate for social causes that required being with people, whether working for the World Health Organization, especially in India, or for Planned Parenthood while living with Adam in Boston.

And again, there is little drama in the past, for their love enables them to adapt to each other’s needs. And while there are continual reminders that they will eventually separate, there are few clues regarding why. So we continue to absorb this beautifully told tale, wondering what will happen in Rome today, wondering how this author will resolve their situation, and also wondering what could have so abruptly torn them apart, could have destroyed that deep, passionate love forty years ago.

And we do find out, of course. The final flashback reveals why they separated. It is well-told, but a bit melodramatic, and also rather ordinary, as we learn why Miranda has never wanted to voice the name Beverly. Then we return to Rome, and Adam and Miranda decide where to go from here in a moment of mutual introspection that is entirely in character. Indeed, there is a beautiful, suggestive ending in the penultimate chapter, and one wonders why this novel still goes on. Did the publisher, the editor, the author, find it too inconclusive? I did not. But that appears to be the case, for the final chapter makes absolutely clear their future relationship.

What has begun as a highly promising novel of two married people, now quite mature and encountering their first love of long ago, turns into merely a successful work of former lovers touring Rome. It is a tender work, and vergers on being emotionally moving. It is satisfying as well, but it is not a great work. Perhaps because the couple spends too much time avoiding issues, avoiding whether they are still open to love, and avoiding a discussion of the responsibility for their separation. The latter, perhaps, because it would negate the suspense of the reader finding out why. For a story that is occurring so deeply inside these characters, in fact, this novel is much too concerned with surface events.

In her Times, review, however, Liesl Schillinger suggests an appropriate metaphor for their tour through the streets of Rome. She compares the centuries-old stone architecture of that city with the “entombed emotions” of Miranda, “as she retraces old ground with the man who hurt her more deeply that any man could hurt her thereafter.”

One should note that this begins as Adam’s story, as he establishes his pursuit. Because, we later learn, he has felt a sense of guilt for their youthful break-up. But then, this becomes more of Miranda’s tale, reflecting her viewpoint, as is perhaps natural for a female author. But despite this propensity, at key moments Gordon delves with equal insight into Adam’s heart and mind, into his doubts about right and wrong, both then and now, and his sensitive reserve. With the end result being a finely balanced presentation of this mutual revisiting of the past—a result that is fully satisfying, even as one is aware of its missed potential. This would perhaps entail a deeper exploration of their consciences.

Mary Gordon’s novels will always be on my reading list. And while there was no need for the characters’ spiritual life in this tale, it might nevertheless have helped here, and its return to her work would revive my interest even more. (April, 2015)

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