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Book review

Bittersweet reckoning in love’s rediscovery

By Clea Simon
April 20, 2011

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Rome may be the Eternal City, but for two former lovers meeting after 30 years, its beauty and history accentuate the passage of time as much as that which lasts. This interplay of past and present provides the framework for a subtle and precise exploration of the human heart in Mary Gordon’s evocative “The Love of My Youth.’’

Adam and Miranda first fall in love as teenagers in the 1960s. Their relationship lasts into their 20s before falling apart through a heartbreaking betrayal that changes the course of both their lives. Three decades later, the two are reunited when both find themselves in Rome — he accompanying his musician daughter as she studies; she for work — when a friend invites them to dinner. The dinner is a disaster but serves to throw the two guests together, and they agree to meet daily for the duration of Miranda’s visit. After the initial flush of curiosity, both have their reservations: Neither has ever truly forgiven Adam for the way he ended their affair. But shared nostalgia for their youth as well the unresolved issues of their love set the simple action of the novel in motion.

In her first novel since 2005’s “Pearl,’’ Gordon treads a circumspect path. Both her characters are guarded, their loyalties as clearly delineated as the daily excursions they make with one another. But Gordon shows us how such careful, limited interactions allow these sensitive souls to slowly abandon their resentments and preconceptions.

Gordon does this largely through the characters’ voices. Her mix of dialogue and interior monologue creates a detailed rendering of two very different people. Adam, the promising pianist, has had his hopes (and health) dashed and now thinks in practical terms: teaching rather than performing to support his wife and daughter. Miranda, the idealist, has followed her dreams to make a career in public health, but she still struggles to relax and enjoy the good things in life. As they take their daily walks, the layers between them are stripped away, bringing them back first to the issues that tore them apart and, ultimately, to the love that bound them. Working back from their present lives, they come to understand their younger selves better.

As they talk, we see them as they were in a series of flashbacks, and Gordon excels at the specifics that summarize their youthful personalities: “when Miranda is reading nineteenth-century novels or learning new dances with her friends, Adam is practicing the piano four, six, sometimes seven, even eight hours a day.’’ Delivered as a matter-of-fact third-person narrative, these passages sometimes lack the piquancy of the present-day scenes. Still, these sections serve as a resource, highlighting not only the tragedy of lost love but also the inevitable demise of youth, always bittersweet.

What they and we learn is that although Adam’s betrayal is forefront in both their minds, it was only a final act. As young people, they had been growing apart as they explored different paths and were insecure in their blossoming identities, making some kind of crisis inevitable. Those insecurities along with many old dreams are now largely gone, replaced by mature concerns about money, families, and careers. The traits that drew them together once are slowly rediscovered as old resentments get put to rest. Romantic as this rediscovery is, “The Love of My Youth’’ is no fairy tale. The years separating Miranda and Adam are not to be ignored, nor are their current lives complete with spouses and children to be taken for granted. If anything, this mismatched pair discover, they are all to be treasured, like fading memories of joy.

Clea Simon is the author of six novels. She can be reached at cleas@earthlink.net.

THE LOVE OF MY YOUTH By Mary Gordon

Pantheon, 302 pp., $25.95