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Late-Life Love: A Memoir

Review

Late-Life Love: A Memoir

Was it curiosity, fear, hope, illusion or some other unplanned mixture of expectations that drew me to Susan Gubar’s LATE-LIFE LOVE?

I’m still not sure, but now that I’ve traveled its 337 pages, one of the few certainties I have about this oddly mesmerizing and endearing book is that being unsure is all right in Gubar’s world. In fact, it can even be empowering.

A cancer survivor who was supposed to meet her expiry date a decade ago, Gubar had the good fortune to receive a successful experimental drug that extended her remission. So what has she done with that extraordinary gift of quality time? As a cancer survivor myself, I want as little to do with this horrible disease as possible, for as long as possible, but not Gubar.

She delved even deeper into that scary world to write MEMOIR OF A DEBULKED WOMAN (2012), about her battle with ovarian cancer --- the one that took my own mother far before her time---and READING AND WRITING CANCER (2016), whose gestation and birth slightly overlapped that of LATE-LIFE LOVE.

This latest work from Gubar, a retired university English professor best known for her brilliant and heartfelt New York Times essays on the challenges of aging, is a welcome addition to that rare list of books that truly straddles two genres --- that of memoir and literary criticism.

"[O]ne of the few certainties I have about this oddly mesmerizing and endearing book is that being unsure is all right in Gubar’s world. In fact, it can even be empowering."

Gubar easily could have filled LATE-LIFE LOVE with anecdotes and reflections on the hopes and realities of conjugal life begun at an age when many seniors have lost their spouses, are single again and often terminally lonely. She could have examined how life unfolds for couples whose age differences span a decade or more, as in her own marriage…and mine.

Or she could have focused on how youthfully entered long marriages change and adapt over many decades to face the inevitable and often painful losses that come with advancing age. Any of these themes would have produced a memorable book, because that’s the only kind Gubar writes.

But LATE-LIFE LOVE is about all of them, and more, which makes it not only uniquely personal but universal, in the best consciousness-raising sense of the word. In the midst of coping with her own health issues and simultaneously supporting her much older husband through a difficult and prolonged recovery from major knee surgery, Gubar called upon her vast literary experience to explore how other writers and their characters over the centuries have dealt with love in the so-called twilight years.

What she comes up with is a surprisingly mixed bag that includes dreamy nostalgia, passive acceptance of failing minds and bodies, defiant zeal for every last drop of ecstasy, fear of decay and death, faith in the unquantifiable strength of mutual devotion, dry humor about the dry years, practical insights for 21st-century relationships, and a renewed appreciation for mature compassion.

And that’s where Gubar’s keen and unflinching critical powers are at their best. Far from escaping blindly into literature while waiting for medical appointments, or riding out bad days (of which she and her husband had more than their fair share), Gubar meticulously probed the intent, integrity and authenticity of an astonishing gallery of authors, from the familiar to the almost unknown.

A partial list of contributors to LATE-LIFE LOVE includes Ovid, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Donald Hall, Samuel Beckett, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, John Updike, John Donne and Colette. Each of them, in some way --- not always transparent or easily detectable --- contributes to a mosaic of understanding that our society has generally ignored or denied.

Throughout the book, Gubar and her husband Don are repeatedly grateful for their large and willing network of supportive friends and relatives who prove indispensable in overcoming some of the critical logistics of aging, such as downsizing and transportation. The unspoken but clear teaching here is to build and care for your supporters before you need them!

Another issue that affects Americans more than we “spoiled” Canadians, with our more accessible national health care system, is that of getting the right medical help when you need it, and being able to afford it. High costs, red tape, long delays and even surgical incompetence all eroded this couple’s life more than they should have.

LATE-LIFE LOVE is not for the faint-hearted, but neither is it a gloomy or fatalistic anthology of decline. Far from it! In fact, I would highly recommend it to couples decades younger who should know that there is not only “life” in one’s senior years, but beauty and pleasure as well. Like Susan Gubar, you just have to know where to find it.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 4, 2019

Late-Life Love: A Memoir
by Susan Gubar

  • Publication Date: November 13, 2018
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039360957X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393609578