The theme of reuniting with a first love, after years of going different ways, is not new. But unlike Anita Shreve’s thoughtful Where or When, or Kristin Hannah’s mysterious On Mystic Lake, Mary Gordon’s The Love of My Youth transports the reader to Rome. As Miranda and Adam get reacquainted after not seeing each other for forty years, their daily walk touring the Eternal City is more inviting than the suspense of discovering the trauma behind their separation.
High school sweethearts who became college lovers, Adam was an aspiring pianist and Miranda a fiery activist in their youth. A betrayal tears them apart, and they have moved on to marry others and have children, with lives that have displaced their dreams. The serendipitous reunion offers a chance to revisit their time together in Rome years ago, and to resolve issues that led them to separate paths. As they wander through famous gardens, fountains, churches, and art, their slow conversations frame their reminiscing while revealing both who they were and who they have become.
The slow dialogue requires attention to catch the inflections, as Gordon tries to use her characters to mark moments they may have misconstrued and may never understand. The thought-provoking inserts are sometimes overdone:
“At some point we will not be here. On this earth. At some point, Miranda and he will be…where. Not here. He takes her hand and kisses it, and they are both embarrassed, so he drops it quickly, and calls the waiter for a check.”
It’s a slow slog as they avoid the elephant in the room. At times, you may wish they would just say what they mean to each other, instead of the italicized thought bubbles Gordon inserts. When their thoughts fall back to their youth, the action has historical context (the sixties) that shaped their lives, and as young hopefuls with potential, their characters seem more remarkable. In the present, the characters fade and Rome becomes the focal point.
After three weeks of angst and touring Rome, Miranda and Adam finally confront each other, and the betrayal is revealed. It’s no surprise by now that they were never the youthful soul mates they envisioned; Gordon’s access to their inner thoughts will have convinced you that they would have made each other miserable.
The story was a restful respite after reading Flynn’s Gone Girl; the psychological trauma is soft-pedelled with Gordon, and all is resolved philosophically. Revisiting Rome – the Villa Borghese, the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Campo dia Fiore, the Bocca della Verite (the mouth of truth) – as well as its hidden treasures – La Casina dell’Orologio, Bernini’s saddled elephant, Keats’s grave – was a better story than the fate of the two long-lost lovers.