To fully give yourself over to Mary Gordon's luscious, wistful new novel, you first have to make yourself forget that the Internet exists.
Let me explain. Gordon's novel, called The Love of My Youth, opens in Rome in 2007. The premise is that two former lovers — Americans named Adam and Miranda who haven't seen each other in nearly 40 years — are brought together for a dinner party at the flat of a mutual friend. Adam and Miranda fell in love at 16 and remained together throughout college and beyond. This was the real deal — the two were going to be married, have children together — until Adam, in a bumbling move whose details we readers don't find out about till the end of the novel, betrayed Miranda and they parted. They've each gone on and lived their lives, had solid careers, married other people, spawned children who are now themselves adults.
When fate throws the ex-lovers together again in Rome, they're pushing 60. And neither of them has ever once trolled the Internet to find out whatever happened to the person who was once the passionate center of his/her life! I suppose it's possible: Adam and Miranda are better, more dignified people than most of us are. In the privacy of their home offices, during down time at work, they do not Google. If you can muzzle your skepticism on this matter, The Love of My Youth is an enchanting read: A travelogue through time, as well as through some of Rome's most beautiful spaces, Gordon's novel dangles out the fantasy of the faultlessly executed second chance.
It's a testament to Gordon's sure touch as a writer that she manages to set up the cumbersome pretext of the aging ex-lovers' reunion with as little clanking and hammering as possible. The mature Miranda is an epidemiologist; she's in Rome, conveniently sans husband, for a three-week conference. Adam, a music teacher, is there chaperoning his 18-year-old daughter, a violin prodigy. After that reunion dinner, Adam, whose Italian-American family hailed from Rome, proposes that they meet for a few hours every day so he can show Miranda some gorgeous Roman locale the tourists haven't totally mobbed. What gal could refuse such an extended act of expiation?
And, so begins a time out of time where Miranda and Adam stroll the Villa Borghese and nestle into cafes, while the book itself shifts into a light novel of ideas. The pair talk about mortality and concepts of identity. Thankfully, all the talk isn't so highfalutin. Here are snatches of a long passage where Miranda opens up to Adam about what it's like for a woman to enter, what she calls, "The Age of Embarrassment":
"What a strange thing it is, embarrassment, so powerful, yet no one acknowledges it as one of the important human states. And it's so physical .. Think of hair color. You have to do it well, because if it's done badly everyone has to feel sorry for you for having to dye your hair. And you have to avoid dying it certain colors so that it appears that you're pretending not to dye it or that you're making a joke of yourself by acknowledging too loudly that it's fake ... More than anything, though, I fear being thought of as a 'game girl.' Those women traveling around in groups wearing red hats. Or maybe they're purple hats ... [S]ubtle, neutral shades: blacks, taupes. A bit of mourning for the end of youth is called for."
As you can hear, Miranda is the judgmental one; Adam the quiet listener — personality differences whose fatal implications become more telling through Gordon's evocative flashbacks to the couple's shared youth during the 1960s.
The Love of My Youth has all the undeniable appeal — and the contrivance — of that perennial PBS Brit com As Time Goes By (a show whose premise also is hard to imagine in the Internet age). But, much more is at stake in Gordon's novel than the "will they or won't they" suspense of a possible holiday hookup. Gordon's characters explore the hard costs of changing, maturing. They share the dazed epiphany of late middle age — namely, that it takes so long to grow up, and then you die. Readers may well feel that same shock at the end of The Love of My Youth: It takes awhile to settle into Gordon's world here, and then it's all over much too quickly.