- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2011

By Mary Gordon
Pantheon, $35.95, 302 pages

”It has been nearly forty years since she has seen him. Or to be exact - and it is one of the things she values in herself, her ability to be exact - thirty six years and four months. She saw him last on June 23, 1971. The day had changed her.”

That paragraph appears on the very first page, and if you have any romanticism in your soul, you will read on. Whether or not you will enjoy the way the gifted and much-praised Mary Gordon works out the opening teaser of “The Love of My Youth,” her 15th book and seventh novel, may also depend on the amount of romanticism you have.

Miranda and Adam meet as teenagers and fall in love as only the very young can. They are social and temperamental opposites. He’s a gifted (piano prodigy) only child of second-generation Italian-Americans, and she and her older brother are part of an upper-middle-class WASP family. His parents struggle mightily, almost miraculously, to pay for his lessons and then to send him to private schools; her parents don’t have to struggle to give their children, basically, everything.

Opposites attract with the force of magnets to metal, and while she adores and becomes part of his warm family, he remains ill-at-ease with hers, especially her father, whose every word and gesture conveys his unchangeable opinion that this Adam is not good enough for his Miranda.

By the time the couple head off to college, they are lovers as well as in love. But suddenly, it’s the 1960s. Adam remains focused, laserlike, on his world of “serious music,” but Miranda discovers the great world of protest and learns that she is drawn to a very simple goal in life: to save the world.

Alas, the serpent eventually enters the garden, and they break apart, violently and for good. Their lives take very different directions, and they never see or talk to each other again until 2007, in Rome, when a mutual friend invites them both to dinner.

Rome is where Adam, a high school music teacher, is living while his daughter, a very promising violinist, is studying with an important teacher. As for Miranda, she’s there to attend a conference of environmentalists while her husband remains in the States, as does Adam’s wife.

At dinner, Miranda has a minor accident, Adam leaps to her side, and they exit together. They decide to meet every day for the three-week duration of Miranda’s conference and take a walk around Rome. If you don’t find that idea romantic or dangerous or both, read no further (and have your pulse checked).

It soon becomes quite clear that for all these years, Miranda has felt betrayed by something truly reprehensible Adam did, but the author takes what seems like forever to reveal what it was. In the meantime, as they walk around the magnificent city, stopping at well-described monuments and churches and a few museums, the elephant in the piazza grows larger and larger.

Both Adam and Miranda seem reluctant, afraid really, to bring up whatever it was, so what they do instead is to walk and talk - and talk and talk and talk and talk. (On Page 253, when she says, “Can we go somewhere and just sit and not talk?” I wanted to scream, PLEASE DO!)

Therein lies the rub, at least for me, as I don’t think real people really talk like this. For example, this Miranda-speaks-first exchange as they stroll in the Villa Borghese:

“I always thought I’d see your mother again. That one day we’d meet and it would be as it always was.”

“She was sad that you never got in touch.”

“We had a difficult last meeting.”

“She will not say what is in her mind: I wanted her to be on my side, to vilify you, to be with me against you. But she wouldn’t. She said, ‘But you must understand he is my son. He has only one mother. I can never not be with him. I can never be against him. You want me to be against him, and this I can never do.’ “

What is this, “Love Story, Revisited”? I don’t mean to be harsh, but Mary Gordon has written some truly wonderful books (“Pearl,” “Final Payments,” “The Company of Women,” among others), and in my opinion, this just isn’t up to her usual high standard.

Also, some of her sentences are awkward (“She sees the desirability of what her daughter is moving away from her to approach…”) and others are simply cliches (“He loves her now as a weak thing, but he doesn’t love her as a tree loves the sun” and, at the bottom of the same page, “The darkness of the world has wiped its brush across her face…”).

There’s some nice writing at the end, but by then, the damage has been done. When Ms. Gordon finally reveals Adam’s great sin, there are fewer than 50 pages left in the book. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether the wait was worth it. As for me, I’m already waiting for Mary Gordon’s next novel.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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