'The Love of My Youth': Two former lovers and their reckoning in Rome
Mary Gordon's novel "The Love of My Youth" is the story of two former lovers' reunion in Italy, many years after their passionate, youthful affair.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Love of My Youth'
by Mary Gordon
Pantheon, 302 pp., $25.95
Despite the title, and its central premise of a couple having a rendezvous decades after they were childhood sweethearts, "The Love of My Youth" is not the sort of romantic novel you might expect.
Mary Gordon's contemplative seventh novel is not so much a romance as a reckoning, a reminiscence, a reflection on aging, identity and absolution. And if the prose and characters are not always as scintillating as one would hope, Gordon crafts a story layered with wise insights, and gives it a picture-postcard setting that lovers of Italy will delight in.
It is Rome where Miranda and Paul meet up, nearly 40 years after their bitter breakup.
The circumstances of their encounter are rather contrived. And Gordon takes her time teasing out the reasons for their parting, which are gradually revealed in intermittent chapters about their ardent, sexually charged love affair, which began in high school and lasted through their college years.
Both now are contentedly married to others and have grown children. And both have chased youthful dreams, and not entirely fulfilled them. She is an environmental epidemiologist who wanted to be a secular version of Mother Teresa. He was a child piano prodigy who didn't make the grade as a concert soloist. He teaches music instead.
Reintroduced by a friend living in Italy, the two have enough time in Rome to (at Paul's insistence) meet up every day for a short walk before Miranda is set to return home to Berkeley, Calif. Each day they take in one famous Roman sight: the Piazza Barberini, the Galleria Borges, Santa Cecilia.
On each walk they update each other on their lives, recall old times (often warily), talk about art and travel and the mysterious process of entering their 60s. And they experience echoes of the same attractions and frictions that brought them together (and perhaps drove them apart). Miranda is bolder, more impatient and opinionated than Paul. He is more guarded, and sometimes obtuse.
Their self-analytical colloquies and soliloquies in Rome can get weighty and self-conscious. But the novel springs to life in the flashbacks to their love affair. The thrill of first love, the delirium of first sex, the internal, familial and social pressures are conveyed compellingly. These vivid chapters, which also reflect the turbulent sociopolitical changes of the 1960s, are what make you care about these people and eager to discover what broke them apart.
In the end, Paul and Miranda do not behave like a couple in a romance novel. Instead they find what so many of us seek: a certain peace with our past, and with the person we used to be and (at heart) still are.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.