Fifty-something Miranda is in Rome for a business conference. At the behest of an old college friend, she's invited to dinner where she meets up with her old flame, Adam, whom she hasn't seen in nearly 40 years --- not since the end of their young romance, when he broke her heart.
Happily married with two grown sons, Miranda works as an epidemiologist specializing in environmental threats. Back when Adam knew her, she wanted to change the world through good works. These days, she's less militant about her cause, but her compassion comes out through her work. Adam, once a promising musician, is in Rome with his daughter, a violin prodigy who is attending a special music school. Their reunion is awkward and tentative at first, each one feeling guilty about having betrayed the other, and each not exactly sure how the demise of their relationship came about. Time and distance can play such tricks on the memory.
After the initial unease subsides, Adam suggests that they meet each day for a walk on which he'll show her something truly beautiful in the city --- something that the tour guides leave out. She agrees. On these sun-soaked autumn mornings, they seek out hidden gardens and beautiful secret sculptures throughout Rome. As they warm up to each other again, they each let their guard down and begin to reminisce about their long-ago relationship. Miranda was on fire to change the world. Adam was going to accomplish this through his music. And they were going to do it together. Or so they thought.
Miranda muses: "We were young; we were younger than his daughter, Lucy, is now. There were things we believed; there were things we wouldn't have even begun to imagine….We thought that we would be each other's one true love. We believed in that idea: the one true love. Now, it is impossible that we should believe that, living as we have lived, having loved others."
As they deliberate over their shared past, what once seemed so clearly black and white has faded into gray with age. Miranda bore the sting of Adam's betrayal for years, but she also did her share of betraying. While pondering a famous statue on a Roman side street, Adam remarks: "We believe that it's important to leave a mark, but it doesn't occur to us that it might be a bad mark, undistinguished or corrupt, a mark that would be better unleft." Each one bears a mark from the other. Having lost his first wife to suicide and suffering a heart attack a few years earlier, Adam knows that "there's not an infinity of time" for anyone. If they had stayed together, could they have made it work?
Although THE LOVE OF MY YOUTH sounds like a sentimental romance novel, it's far from it. This is not Nicholas Sparks territory. Mary Gordon's well-drawn characters are flesh and blood; as such, they ponder, they muse, they question, and they talk. Boy, do they talk! But it's refreshing to see a different take on the classic romantic formula. Miranda and Adam live in the real world, not in a romance novel, making their actions genuine and relatable. Instead of AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, this is more AN AFFAIR TO RUMINATE OVER.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 25, 2011
The Love of My Youth