Those of us who are of a certain age sometimes find ourselves wondering, “Am I still the person I once was?” Nothing can bring this question to mind more quickly than seeing a friend from the past. This question—and the issues that result—are examined beautifully in Mary Gordon’s seventh novel, The Love of My Youth, in which childhood sweethearts meet again after more than 30 years and immerse themselves in discussing a shared past.
Miranda and Adam are both in Rome, brought there by family and business obligations. Both are in their late 50s, happily married, with grown children. Once a gifted pianist, Adam attended conservatory and now teaches music at a small college. Miranda, whose politics and social conscience were profoundly affected by the Vietnam War and the women’s movement, pursued a career in epidemiology. Rome holds passionate memories for both of them, since they lived there together briefly after college. Their reunion, at the apartment of a mutual friend, is awkward, but they are intrigued enough to meet again and plan a series of daily walks. As they take in the city’s glorious museums, parks and restaurants, they find they still have much to share. Aspirations, dreams and disappointments are cautiously revealed.
Miranda and Adam’s early romance, love affair and painful breakup are examined in three flashbacks that detail the intimacies of their relationship and masterfully capture the tumultuous social changes of the 1960s and ’70s. Each of them guards a long-held interpretation of what led to their breakup, as well as feelings of guilt and remorse. Meeting again forces them to re-examine the past and take steps on the path to accepting themselves as they once were.
Gordon’s novels often feature personal dramas set against a backdrop of political or religious change. She is sensitive to the subtlest differences of class and religion, and the most satisfying aspects of The Love of My Youth are Gordon’s interpretations of how the differences in Adam and Miranda’s backgrounds impact their relationship. The novel is also filled with small resonating details, from the architectural beauties of urban Rome to Adam and Miranda’s anxious glimpses of their aging bodies in front of hotel mirrors. The Love of My Youth is as much about how we feel about our past and the choices we made and make, as it is about the love story between two young people.