Book review: Mary Gordon’s ‘The Love of My Youth,’ a melancholy Roman holiday

April 19, 2011

At a recent neighborhood party, a well-read friend blurted out something terrifying. “I’m bored with fiction,” she said. “I’m tired of novels about me.” She’s a smart, middle-aged woman, the kind of character we meet again and again in any number of “beautifully choreographed” novels about “the way we live now.” Dinner went on without a pause, but I could hear panic in the great publishing houses 250 miles north. As Ian McEwan said, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

But how many novels are already dead? I don’t mean the zombie mash-ups that keep beating their little joke into a bloody pulp. I’m talking about those somber, important books that moan out of New York every year in search of the 80,000 people who still care deeply about contemporary literature. Amid the nuclear winter that’s fallen over bookstores and book sections, it seems treasonous to complain about a serious book — after all, we invented the term “literary fiction” because “dull novels” sounded so unkind — but is it any wonder that millions of intelligent adults would prefer a boy wizard or a Swedish serial killer?

Mary Gordon’s latest, “The Love of My Youth,” makes for an unfortunate example of the finely wrought, tepid novel. It’s lovely and thoughtful, the kind of story one really would like to finish someday. The opening is promising: Two old lovers, Miranda and Adam, haven’t seen each other in almost 40 years when a mutual friend invites them to a comically disastrous dinner in Rome. Their awkward reunion scratches open old hurts and desires.

Gordon moves fluidly between them, catching Adam’s need for forgiveness and Miranda’s determination to prove that she has flourished in the decades since he betrayed her. Although they’re both happily married to others, circumstances have dropped them in Italy for the next three weeks, and Adam proposes that they meet each morning. “What I would like is to promise you that we will see one beautiful thing every day,” he tells Miranda. “We’ll walk and talk. We’ll see what happens.”

Not very much does. Gordon is a brilliant writer of fiction and nonfiction, but there’s a pomposity about this novel that suffocates it. Each short chapter starts with a date and a place, e.g. “Monday, October 15: Santa Ce­cil­ia,” along with an evocative phrase taken from that day’s conversation, e.g. “What Are We Getting but ­Glimpses.” The book’s affected title should have given me a clue, but chapter after chapter, I kept listening for some note of irony or self-deprecating humor in those pithy epigraphs. Alas, alack, it never came: “I Wish We Had Realized That We Were Beautiful,” “Were We Wrong to Be So Hopeful?,” “Why Is It There Are Some Things We Aren’t Meant to See?” It’s like being trapped at your 30-year reunion with the treacly editor of the old high school literary magazine.

In the city, Miranda and Adam come and go, talking of Michelangelo. They see the Piazza di Santa Maria, the Via Arenula, the chapel of San Carlino and a dozen other interesting places that serve as a literary tour of Rome. They reflect on the value of art, the meaning of death, the depth of one’s responsibilities to the world. Gordon, who studied in Rome on a grant from Barnard College, where she teaches English, lets this glorious city guide their conversation through matters personal and philosophical, but for many chapters they avoid the tender matter of their old breakup.

Adam’s life was dedicated to music, Miranda’s to social activism. He reminds her, “When we were young together and we spoke so easily in such high terms, you said, ‘I want to relieve suffering.’ And I said, ‘I want to create beauty.’ ” They’ve both seen their ideals and their ardor tempered by disappointment — and by time. “It excites her to be speaking in this way,” Miranda thinks, “a way she no longer speaks,” but I kept wondering, Did anybody ever speak this way? “She is carried by the wave of their talk; she doesn’t want to be let down onto the shore of ordinary speech.” The frothy earnestness of their conversation becomes harder and harder to endure. It reminded me of the guest at a Transcendental Club meeting at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house who described the group sitting around wondering, “Who will now proceed to say the finest thing that has ever been said?”

Three longer chapters periodically interrupt their progress around Rome and take us back to the United States during the 1960s, when Miranda and Adam fell desperately in love as high schoolers. This relief from their profound daily walks provides some necessary drama, along with a sweet portrayal of teenage romance heated in the crucible of self-righteousness. But the suspense over their mysterious betrayal gets stretched far too thin. When the great revelation finally arrives, it only confirms that young lovers almost always betray each other in the usual way, no matter how overwrought their memories of that tragedy may be.

Charles, The Washington Post’s fiction editor, reviews books every Wednesday.

the love of my youth

By Mary Gordon

Pantheon. 302 pp. $25.95

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