The Love of My Youth

In Richard Linklater's 1995 movie Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke play a young Frenchwoman and an American who meet on a train from Budapest and spend a romantic night walking and talking all over Vienna before he catches his morning flight back to the States. I thought of this movie—and its sequel, Before Sunset (2004), in which the lovers rekindle their old connection in Paris nine years later—while reading Mary Gordon's seventh novel. Like these lushly romantic films, The Love of My Youth probes questions about serendipity in life and love, and whether there is such a thing as a fated soulmate.


The main impetus of Gordon's novel is neither nostalgia nor romance but self-definition. Two former lovers, Adam and Miranda, who met in high school in Hastings, New York and thought they would be together forever, reconnect by chance in Rome nearly 40 years after their cataclysmic breakup after college. They wander—as do Delpy and Hawke—around a foreign, richly visual city and talk, talk, talk, slowly defining who they are now, at 59, while cagily circling the subject of whether they have changed, and what happened all those years ago.


But whereas the movie couple are constrained by impending flights, Gordon's characters have an unbelievable luxury of time. They meet for daily walks over three weeks in October, 2007—an unscheduled block in the lives of busy, married adults that strains credulity. Gordon would have us believe that Miranda, an environmental epidemiologist in Rome for a conference, has hours free every day to meet Adam because her Israeli husband, also in public health, who was supposed to join her, had to stay home in Berkeley to arrange care for his stroke-afflicted mother. Meanwhile, Adam, a private school music teacher on summer break, is chaperoning his 18-year-old daughter from his second marriage, a promising violinist, on a prestigious three-month conservancy scholarship; his young second wife, a dentist, is home working. What, we wonder, would Adam have done with his time if he hadn't met up with the woman whose heart he broke all those decades ago?


Gordon's readers know—from novels including Final Payments (1978) and Spending (1998), and memoirs of her parents, The Shadow Man (1996) and Circling My Mother (2007)—that she is drawn to intensely felt, voluptuously expressed emotional distress. In The Love of My Youth, she alternates with agility, often paragraph by paragraph, between Miranda's and Adam's points of view, written in a close third person. In flashbacks to the 1960s, though, she strikes the tone of an over-emphatic docent taking us on a tour of her couple's past—"And so they leave their family houses, Adam and Miranda, never to return," she writes ponderously, repeating just a page later, "Adam and Miranda leave their families to take their places in the world. Joined, they believe, hand in hand, forever, on a path that will stretch out the whole length of their lives."


The leisurely timeline of Gordon's novel leads to unrushed explorations not just of Rome but of "the shape, the texture" of each other's lives, and questions such as, "Are we fated to always be the people we were?" and "Who were we? Who are we now?"


On their perambulations through the Piazza Barberini, Villa Borghese, and Campo dei Fiori, Adam and Miranda discuss art, music, and aspirations abandoned for more ordinary lives, either willingly (Miranda) or unwillingly (Adam); the importance of hope; and their attitudes toward success, failure, mediocrity, and gender. They also wrestle with an essential incompatibility: Miranda's unrelenting, guilt-fueled drive to improve the world, versus Adam's engagement with the beauty of classical music, which he finds sufficient in itself. These conversations are more intense than playful, the sort of heart-to-hearts more common in dormitories than suburban homes.


Gordon captures the dynamics of guilt and the particular "satisfaction of a cherished bitterness." She understands Adam's relief that Miranda survived his betrayal, and Miranda's vindication in realizing that she has led the happier, healthier life: Adam has paid for his defection with a heart condition and a miserable first marriage that ended with his wife's suicide.


The Love of My Youth is a slow tease toward discovering what happened between this couple—a revelation I will leave to the reader. Recognizing that the past is "a dark wave that could all too easily drown them," Gordon's couple skirts sensitive subjects until faced with a deadline—Miranda's impending flight home. The question is, with less time on their hands, like the characters in Before Sunrise, would they have cut to the chase sooner, or not gotten there at all?

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