More than halfway through The Love of My Youth, Mary Gordon's latest novel, two former high school sweethearts share a meal at an expensive restaurant nearly 40 years after their passionate, six-year love affair has ended badly.
When the waiter brings the food, the woman -- who has remained bitter about the terrible breakup -- observes to the man, "We're more than halfway through." Does she mean the meal, their chance reunion, or something else? When he asks what she means, she replies, "Our life."
With the first wave of baby boomers turning 65 this year, Gordon, who was born in 1949, has written a novel that explores the regrets and consolations of growing old.
She does so through the prism of Adam and Miranda -- be forewarned that the symbolism of their names is something of a spoiler alert, with Miranda meaning "admirable" and Adam standing for the first man, expelled from paradise for original sin.
These former lovers, who resumed their acquaintance at a mutual friend's apartment in Rome, decide to take daily walks through the Eternal City's glorious parks and villas for the duration of Miranda's business trip. They want to discover who they have become, and Rome's art and architecture provide a stimulus for their ruminations about love, death, and passions.
This is an artificial conceit, and it could have been tedious except, happily, it works. Their present-day, often self-conscious conversation is interrupted by flashbacks that explain how they met, what kind of young people they were, and what they aspired to be.
The idealism of the 1960s is the measuring stick they initially use to judge their present lives. She had wanted to end world suffering; he spent long hours at the piano hoping to make great art.
"Impossible to imagine those young people who we were saying the sentence, 'I belong to a gym,'" Miranda tells Adam after both have confessed to the impossibly philistine sin of working out with a personal trainer. Nor could those young people have imagined the other compromises they've made, especially in their choice of spouses.
At times Gordon's description of their youthful romance strains belief: Were young lovers ever this passionate, thoughtful, caring, and committed? Isn't adolescence more about unrequited love, awkward fumbling in the dark, or both?
Even if first love isn't as rosy for most people as it was for Miranda and Adam, Gordon was definitely on to something when she shaped The Love of My Youth around that concept. For surely there is no one more likely than the love of your youth to remind you of everything you hoped to become.
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