An Old Romance Blooms Anew In 'Love Of My Youth'

The Love Of My Youth by Mary Gordon
 
The Love of My Youth
By Mary Gordon
Hardcover, 320 pages
Pantheon
List Price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

To fully give yourself over to Mary Gordon's luscious, wistful new novel, you first have to make yourself forget that the Internet exists.

Let me explain. Gordon's novel, called The Love of My Youth, opens in Rome in 2007. The premise is that two former lovers — Americans named Adam and Miranda who haven't seen each other in nearly 40 years — are brought together for a dinner party at the flat of a mutual friend. Adam and Miranda fell in love at 16 and remained together throughout college and beyond. This was the real deal — the two were going to be married, have children together — until Adam, in a bumbling move whose details we readers don't find out about till the end of the novel, betrayed Miranda and they parted. They've each gone on and lived their lives, had solid careers, married other people, spawned children who are now themselves adults.

When fate throws the ex-lovers together again in Rome, they're pushing 60. And neither of them has ever once trolled the Internet to find out whatever happened to the person who was once the passionate center of his/her life! I suppose it's possible: Adam and Miranda are better, more dignified people than most of us are. In the privacy of their home offices, during down time at work, they do not Google. If you can muzzle your skepticism on this matter, The Love of My Youth is an enchanting read: A travelogue through time, as well as through some of Rome's most beautiful spaces, Gordon's novel dangles out the fantasy of the faultlessly executed second chance.

It's a testament to Gordon's sure touch as a writer that she manages to set up the cumbersome pretext of the aging ex-lovers' reunion with as little clanking and hammering as possible. The mature Miranda is an epidemiologist; she's in Rome, conveniently sans husband, for a three-week conference. Adam, a music teacher, is there chaperoning his 18-year-old daughter, a violin prodigy. After that reunion dinner, Adam, whose Italian-American family hailed from Rome, proposes that they meet for a few hours every day so he can show Miranda some gorgeous Roman locale the tourists haven't totally mobbed. What gal could refuse such an extended act of expiation?

And, so begins a time out of time where Miranda and Adam stroll the Villa Borghese and nestle into cafes, while the book itself shifts into a light novel of ideas. The pair talk about mortality and concepts of identity. Thankfully, all the talk isn't so highfalutin. Here are snatches of a long passage where Miranda opens up to Adam about what it's like for a woman to enter, what she calls, "The Age of Embarrassment":

Mary Gordon was named the New York State Author in 2008 and won the Story Prize for The Stories of Mary Gordon in 2007. She grew up in Rockaway, N.Y., and now lives in New York and Rhode Island.

Mary Gordon was named the New York State Author in 2008 and won the Story Prize for The Stories of Mary Gordon in 2007. She grew up in Rockaway, N.Y., and now lives in New York and Rhode Island.   hide caption

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"What a strange thing it is, embarrassment, so powerful, yet no one acknowledges it as one of the important human states. And it's so physical .. Think of hair color. You have to do it well, because if it's done badly everyone has to feel sorry for you for having to dye your hair. And you have to avoid dying it certain colors so that it appears that you're pretending not to dye it or that you're making a joke of yourself by acknowledging too loudly that it's fake ... More than anything, though, I fear being thought of as a 'game girl.' Those women traveling around in groups wearing red hats. Or maybe they're purple hats ... [S]ubtle, neutral shades: blacks, taupes. A bit of mourning for the end of youth is called for."

As you can hear, Miranda is the judgmental one; Adam the quiet listener — personality differences whose fatal implications become more telling through Gordon's evocative flashbacks to the couple's shared youth during the 1960s.

The Love of My Youth has all the undeniable appeal — and the contrivance — of that perennial PBS Brit com As Time Goes By (a show whose premise also is hard to imagine in the Internet age). But, much more is at stake in Gordon's novel than the "will they or won't they" suspense of a possible holiday hookup. Gordon's characters explore the hard costs of changing, maturing. They share the dazed epiphany of late middle age — namely, that it takes so long to grow up, and then you die. Readers may well feel that same shock at the end of The Love of My Youth: It takes awhile to settle into Gordon's world here, and then it's all over much too quickly.

Excerpt: 'The Love Of My Youth'

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon
 
The Love of My Youth
By Mary Gordon
Hardcover, 320 pages
Pantheon
List Price: $25.95

October 7, 2007

"I hope it won't be strange or awkward. I mean, what seemed strange to me, or would seem strange, is not to do it. Because in a way it is strange, isn't it, really, the two of you in Rome at the same time, the both of you phoning me the same day?"

Irritation bubbles up in Miranda. Had Valerie always been so garrulous? So vague? Had she, Miranda, always found her so annoying — the qualifications, the emendations, laid down, thrown out like straw on a road to muffle the noise of passing carriages when there'd been a death in the house? Where did that come from? Some novel of the nineteenth century. The early twentieth. And now it is the twenty-first, the first decade nearly done for. There's no point in thinking this way, focusing on Valerie's habits of speech and diction. As if that were the point. The point is simply: she must decide whether or not to go.

It has been nearly forty years since she has seen him. Or to be exact — and it is one of the things she values in herself, her ability to be exact — thirty-six years and four months. She saw him last on June 23, 1971. The day had changed her.

Adam tries to remember if he had ever been genuinely fond of Valerie. What he can recall is that, of Miranda's many friends, Valerie was the one who seemed most interested in him. The one who asked him questions and then listened to his answers, who assumed he had a life whose details might be worthy of her attention. 1966, '67, '68, '69, '70, '71. A time when he spent his days trying to determine the perfect fingering, the ideal tempo, for a Beethoven sonata, a Bach partita. A way of spending time that Miranda's friends considered almost criminally beside the point. The point was stopping the war. Stopping racism. Stop­ping poverty. Diminishing the injustice of the world.

In those days, he couldn't speak to anyone about his pain over the fact that Miranda seemed entirely taken up by the problems of the world. The things that absorbed him no longer captured her attention. Not that he ever wanted to capture her attention; her attention was not a bird he was trying to snare, a fish he was netting. For that was what he loved most about Miranda: her mind's speed, but not only her mind, her quickness in everything. Darting, swooping, leaping, thrilling to him, who moved so slowly, whose every gesture was considered. Those who criticized his playing of the piano accused him of being incapable of lightness. She was a bright thing, a shim­mering thing, a kingfisher, a dragonfly. Thirty-six years later she would be no longer young. Had she kept her quickness? Her lightness? Which would he have preferred, that she had kept or lost them?

Is that why he's agreed to it, to seeing her after all these years, at this dinner Valerie has arranged? Out of simple curiosity? Along with lacking lightness, he has been charged with lacking curiosity. But perhaps both had always been untrue. That curiosity has in this instance triumphed over shame: this must be a sign of strength. For if his soul is, as he'd learned in Sunday school, a clear vessel that could be blackened by his sins, what he did to Miranda was among the blackest. When he told himself he couldn't have helped it, that he had done the best, the only thing he could have done under the circum­stances, the words rang false. He would be tempted to say that to her now, but he would never say it. He is hoping there will be no need. That they will see each other once again, no longer young but healthy, prosperous, intact. That he will see the proof: that he did not destroy her.

##

She stands before the spotted mirror. A dime-sized pool of expensive moisturizer — rose scented, ordered especially from a Romanian cosmetician in New York — spreads in the heat of her palm. Miranda wonders what Adam looks like. She tries on a long black skirt, throws it impatiently on the bed, then Nile green silk pants with wide legs. She tries on the black skirt again. Then a violet knit top, which she rejects because it emphasizes her breasts. Once a vexation to her on account of their smallness, her breasts had done all right with age. She's glad he won't be seeing her naked. Or in a bathing suit. Well, she is nearly sixty now, and her body shows the marks of bear­ing two strong healthy sons. Her legs, which, he had said, caused him a desire that was painful in its intensity when he saw them in her first miniskirt — September 1965 — but which she'd always thought too thick, too straight, these had gone flabby. She's tried — swimming, running, yoga — but nothing really helps. Most of the time she doesn't think of it, she doesn't really care. It's one of the benefits of age: such things have lost their power to scald.

She's blonde now; he would not be accustomed to thinking of her as a blonde, and her hair is short, boyish. In the time they knew each other her hair had hung down her back at one point almost to her waist. Her hair was brown then, a light brown; he'd called it honey colored. She'd parted it in the mid­dle or braided it into a single plait. Then she remembers: he did see her, briefly, with boyish hair. She doesn't like to think about that time.

She looks at the lines around her eyes, her mouth. Her face has not ceased to please her, but it could never be the face that he had loved.

Excerpted from The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon. Copyright 2011 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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