Miranda and Adam, high school sweethearts now in their late fifties, arrive by chance at the same time in Rome, a city where they once spent a summer deeply in love. At an awkward reunion, Adam suggests that they meet for daily walks and get to know each other again. Both have their own sense of who betrayed whom and long-held interpretations of the events that caused them not to part. But gradually, as they take in the pleasures of the city and the drama of its streets, they discover not only what matters to them now but also what happened to them long ago. From acclaimed author Mary Gordon, The Love of My Youth is a poignant look at first love, at the hopes and dreams of a generation, and at what became of them.
October 7, 2007
“I hope it won’t be strange or awkward. I mean, what seemed strange to me, or would seem strange, is not to do it. Because in a way it is strange, isn’t it, really, the two of you in Rome at the same time, the both of you phoning me the same day?”
Irritation bubbles up in Miranda. Had Valerie always been so garrulous? So vague? Had she, Miranda, always found her so annoying—the qualiﬁcations, the emendations, laid down, thrown out like straw on a road to mufﬂe the noise of passing carriages when there’d been a death in the house? Where did that come from? Some novel of the nineteenth century. The early twentieth. And now it is the twenty-ﬁrst, the ﬁrst decade nearly done for. There’s no point in thinking this way, focusing on Valerie’s habits of speech and diction. As if that were the point. The point is simply: she must decide whether or not to go.
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.
Adam tries to remember if he had ever been genuinely fond of Valerie. What he can recall is that, of Miranda’s many friends, Valerie was the one who seemed most interested in him. The one who asked him questions and then listened to his answers, who assumed he had a life whose details might be worthy of her attention. 1966, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71. A time when he spent his days trying to determine the perfect ﬁngering, the ideal tempo, for a Beethoven sonata, a Bach partita. A way of spending time that Miranda’s friends considered almost criminally beside the point. The point was stopping the war. Stopping racism. Stopping poverty. Diminishing the injustice of the world.
In those days, he couldn’t speak to anyone about his pain over the fact that Miranda seemed entirely taken up by the problems of the world. The things that absorbed him no longer captured her attention. Not that he ever wanted to capture her attention; her attention was not a bird he was trying to snare, a ﬁsh he was netting. For that was what he loved most about Miranda: her mind’s speed, but not only her mind, her quickness in everything. Darting, swooping, leaping, thrilling to him, who moved so slowly, whose every gesture was considered. Those who criticized his playing of the piano accused him of being incapable of lightness. She was a bright thing, a shimmering thing, a kingﬁsher, a dragonﬂy. Thirty-six years later she would be no longer young. Had she kept her quickness? Her lightness? Which would he have preferred, that she had kept or lost them?
Is that why he’s agreed to it, to seeing her after all these years, at this dinner Valerie has arranged? Out of simple curiosity? Along with lacking lightness, he has been charged with lacking curiosity. But perhaps both had always been untrue. That curiosity has in this instance triumphed over shame: this must be a sign of strength. For if his soul is, as he’d learned in Sunday school, a clear vessel that could be blackened by his sins, what he did to Miranda was among the blackest. When he told himself he couldn’t have helped it, that he had done the best, the only thing he could have done under the circumstances, the words rang false. He would be tempted to say that to her now, but he would never say it. He is hoping there will be no need. That they will see each other once again, no longer young but healthy, prosperous, intact. That he will see the proof: that he did not destroy her.
She stands before the spotted mirror. A dime-sized pool of expensive moisturizer—rose scented, ordered especially from a Romanian cosmetician in New York—spreads in the heat of her palm. Miranda wonders what Adam looks like. She tries on a long black skirt, throws it impatiently on the bed, then Nile green silk pants with wide legs. She tries on the black skirt again. Then a violet knit top, which she rejects because it emphasizes her breasts. Once a vexation to her on account of their smallness, her breasts had done all right with age. She’s glad he won’t be seeing her naked. Or in a bathing suit. Well, she is nearly sixty now, and her body shows the marks of bearing two strong healthy sons. Her legs, which, he had said, caused him a desire that was painful in its intensity when he saw them in her ﬁrst miniskirt—September 1965—but which she’d always thought too thick, too straight, these had gone ﬂabby. She’s tried—swimming, running, yoga—but nothing really helps. Most of the time she doesn’t think of it, she doesn’t really care. It’s one of the beneﬁts of age: such things have lost their power to scald.
She’s blonde now; he would not be accustomed to thinking of her as a blonde, and her hair is short, boyish. In the time they knew each other her hair had hung down her back at one point almost to her waist. Her hair was brown then, a light brown; he’d called it honey colored. She’d parted it in the middle or braided it into a single plait. Then she remembers: he did see her, brieﬂy, with boyish hair. She doesn’t like to think about that time.
She looks at the lines around her eyes, her mouth. Her face has not ceased to please her, but it could never be the face that he had loved.
He has read about her. An article he found in a doctor’s ofﬁce. “Does Your Ofﬁce Make You Sick?” Sick buildings. She is an epidemiologist specializing in environmental threats. Her subspecialty: molds.
He thought that such work seemed ill suited to her. Quiet, painstaking work. Requiring patience, which she’d always lacked. But then he remembered: it was only with people that she was impatient. With the physical world, she held her quickness in check; she could spend hours looking, sorting.
He wonders how she does her work. Does she go around old buildings, masked, accompanied by young acolytes collecting things in closed containers, tiny bits of plaster prized from the walls with tweezers? He can imagine her sitting at a microscope, one eye glued to a lens, silent, looking. Or perhaps no one uses microscopes anymore. He knows nothing. Valerie told him—he was grateful that he didn’t have to ask—that she is married. A doctor, an Israeli; he is, Valerie said, something important in the California Department of Public Health. He learned this only days ago. Before that, if anyone asked, he wouldn’t have been able to answer the question, What has become of her?
She would know nothing of what has become of him. She would never have read anything about him; he has done nothing that would have placed his name before the public. A music teacher in a private school. Director of the chorus. One day, he might be known as the father of his daughter, if she continues her early promise on the violin. But up to now, it would be accurate to say he’s done nothing worthy of note.
Miranda has heard something, vaguely, some tragedy about Adam’s wife. A suicide. She was not, to her shame, sorry. She would not ask details of Valerie. Even to say the woman’s name, even after all these years, would be an offense against her pride, and this, too, had seemed to her excessive. But it was an impulse she could not give up.
Of course it would be better to be free of them. Of course.
Ridiculous to feel it still all these years later. A sense of betrayal. A sense of abandonment. Two-thirds of her life. Sixty-six and two-thirds percent. She had had a thorough training in statistics; numbers are her friend, they have often made her point, they’ve told the truth, they’ve uncovered poisonous equivocations. How many years has it been since she’d even thought of Adam? And—what was her name. HER. She looks in the mirror and castigates herself for her own falseness, a falseness all the more ridiculous because it is for no one’s beneﬁt but her own. She would never forget the name. That name. Beverly. Bev.
She tries the black skirt on again. Perhaps the white shirt would make her face too pale. Above all she must appear to have, over the years, ﬂourished. A rose-pink camisole, then, and a jacket: small pink and white ﬂowers against a background of black silk. Yes, that’s right. As a young woman she would never have worn pink, disliking what the shade suggested: weakness, girlishness. But she has grown to like pink. No one, she is certain now, would think of her as weak. Or take her for a girl.
Adam stands before the mirror that attaches to the front of his armadio, a looming and reproachful piece, reminding him of its glorious pedigree, hinting reproachfully of his current status (American and not wellborn), an interloper, taking the place of his betters because of Yankee dollars and the slow steady erosion of the values of the lovely past. The people who own the apartment can only afford to keep it because they rent it out most of the year. They live somewhere cheaper. Adam had asked Valerie not to tell him the details.
He moves closer to the mirror so that he can focus, not on his body, but on his thinning hair. No one could say that he was going bald—he is grateful for that—but his hair has lost its luxuriance and, once jet black, is gray now, and he keeps it cropped short to conceal the diminishment (yes, he’s admitted to himself it is a vanity, this effort at concealment). When he saw her last, his hair came down to his shoulders. It curled—his aunts would say, “Those curls are wasted on a boy. What I wouldn’t give to have them.” At least he isn’t so ridiculous as to wear a ponytail at his age, as some of his colleagues do, to the mockery of the more hostile, or more fashion-conscious, students. He can only imagine the contempt Miranda would have for men who wear ponytails. Even after all these years he is certain of it. And, feeling himself enlarged by the comparison that he has just invented, he relaxes about his hair.
Turning from the mirror, he glances at his hands. Nails round, cut short. Pianist’s hands. He has not achieved fame, success, even, but he has not given over his calling. She had loved his hands. She would kiss his ﬁngers and turn his hands over one at a time, and kiss the palms. Her lips, moist, their touch preceded by a warm moist breath (he had found it quite unbearably arousing). “My darling love, my genius boy. What joy you bring with these wonderful hands. You make beautiful music. You make beautiful love. I hope to see your hands the last thing before I close my eyes in death.”
She was capable of speaking ridiculously like that. She was ﬁfteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. She felt free always to overstate, to shed tears. To use terms that were too large: “genius,” “love,” “death.” He had a perfectly ordinary pair of hands. He was, for a serious pianist, only moderately gifted. As for his skill at lovemaking: there was no skill, no art . . . no notion that there was a better way. Or a worse. They were only two young people, ordinary in their youth, their ardor.
It was easier when he thought like that. But it was not the truth, and he would not dishonor the past, the two of them as young, by such a dismissal. In their innocence, in their belief in life and in each other, in the clarity of their desire that had no residue of punishment or will to humiliate or dominate or shame, they had been a thing of beauty. Valuable. Not ever, would he betray that. His youth. Their youth. She was the love of his youth. He is no longer young. And she, too, has lost youth. But he will not betray it.
He remembers dancing with Miranda for the ﬁrst time. It was near Thanksgiving; he had not yet asked her out. Someone had a party in a basement, and although the air outside was taking on a chill, the air in the dark basement was thick with the sense of intense exertion and young lust, hanging like a curtain along with the residual smell of the family beer. He felt about to burst, burst into ﬂame, with longing, longing quick as a ﬂame spreading over a dry ground. A ﬂame he could never imagine extinguishing, never going out. He remembered her writing down a word ﬁrst because she liked it, second because she wanted to do well on her SATs. “Fulvous,” the word was.
No one at the party dreamed of doing more than kissing. Or perhaps the more adventurous might try touching a girl’s breasts. In six months, when many of them turned sixteen and the times they were a-changing, heated discussions among the girls would be the norm: how far could you let him go, after how long.
The ﬁrst night when he danced with Miranda, holding her, he put his mouth against her hair and inhaled the exacting innocence of her shampoo. Clean, maddening. He did feel driven mad with desire, with shame, certain she could not be feeling anything like what he was feeling. When they were dancing, she lifted her chin so that a kiss would happen. It did not. He was too afraid.
Forty years later, he feels the clutch of gratitude. Never in Miranda was there the slightest hint, not the smallest suggestion, that he, male, was monstrous and she, female, shocked, pure. They shared ardor. It was she who suggested they become lovers. They were sixteen years old. Daring then. Now? So commonplace as to be unworthy of mention. They were sitting by the river and she said, “Adam, you need to know something. I want everything that you want, maybe more, maybe worse.” Was it possible that her skin was always warm, even in winter, as if she carried with her always some hint of early June? So he could leave behind the young man’s shame, like a coat he had grown out of. But not the young man’s desperation. Almost impossible to recall that desperation now. The urgency of a boy’s arousal. Now, at nearly sixty, he sometimes has to coax himself to be aroused by a lovely girl. And married sex? It satisﬁes, like a good meal, a ﬁne painting. But desperation? Madness? Not now, never. He had asked his doctor for Viagra.
Miranda need never know that.
Excerpted from The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mary Gordon is the author of six previous novels, two memoirs, a short-story collection, and Reading Jesus, a work of nonfiction. She has received many honors, among them a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry Award, an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Story Prize. She is the State Writer of New York. Gordon teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.
“Evocative. . . . A subtle and precise exploration of the human heart.”
—The Boston Globe
“Emotionally engaging and smoothly flowing, The Love of My Youth showcases Gordon’s power to write with controlled urgency, without dissembling or exaggeration, to reveal truths that are hard to face in the unsparing light of day, but without which we could not see ourselves as we are.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Entrancing. . . . Gordon deftly awakens the strain of regret and desire that we too feel as we watch old loves and old selves recede.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Vivid. . . . Not so much a romance as a reckoning. . . . Gordon crafts a story layered with wise insights, and gives it a picture-postcard setting that lovers of Italy will delight in.”
—The Seattle Times
“Evocative. . . . A travelogue through time, as well as through some of Rome’s most beautiful spaces, Gordon's novel dangles out the fantasy of the faultlessly executed second chance. . . . An enchanting read.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air”
“Gordon writes of the affection and wistfulness one has looking at the self growing smaller in the rearview mirror. And as a soulful and spiritual writer, she is in many ways just the person to write such a book. . . . The Love of My Youth provides us a nice leisurely space to wander—and wonder.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Gordon’s art in capturing the social and political texture of the [1960s] brings the story alive. . . . Armchair travelers will find much to enjoy.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Intricately realized. . . . Gordon’s evocation of thoughtful college students in the late ’60s (her own college era) is exceptionally nuanced and convincing.”
“Gordon 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.”
“Even if first love isn’t as rosy for most people as it was for Miranda and Adam, Gordon was definitely on to something when she shaped The Love of My Youth around that concept. For surely there is no one more likely than the love of your youth to remind you of everything you hoped to become.”
—The Associated Press
“Virtuoso and versatile Gordon offers brilliantly fresh takes on family conflicts, women’s lives, war, and global suffering while ingeniously meshing classic love stories with modern mores, and ecstasy with wisdom, to create an enthralling drama of innocent passion, crushing tragedy, and the careful construction of stable, nurturing lives.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Thoughtful and moving, Gordon’s latest captures the ardor and vulnerability of young love and the cautious circumspection of middle age.”
1. The Love of My Youth is, from the title onward, a novel about age. Do Adam’s and Miranda’s experiences of youth and/or older age speak to your own? Do they ring true to the course of a life? “When you are young, [Miranda] thinks, you never believe that courage isn’t enough. That the imaginative, original decision isn’t always the right one” [p. 16]. How does the idea of choice play into their actions as teenagers and then at the end of the story, when they separately decide not to become lovers again?
2. Have you been to Rome? Do Gordon’s descriptions of the piazzas and museums, the artwork and puppet theater, the poor beggars and the upscale restaurants reflect your memories of the city? How does having the main characters walk around the city help you experience it? How do you think the landscape and the food (“the vivid flavors, spicy tomato, peppery meat and beans, bitter greens drenched in salty fish and vinegar and oil” [p. 81]) fit into Adam’s and Miranda’s ideas about beauty, especially in comparison to their different views on artists such as Bernini?
3. Do Adam and Miranda’s discussions ring true to their characters? Why do you think Gordon chose to structure the novel in this way, focusing on their conversations, and then including flashbacks to the years of their youth? What do you make of Miranda’s statement that it “excites her to be speaking this way, a way she no longer speaks” [p. 140]? Do you think there is a language you share with your first love that is different from any subsequent relationship?
4. This is a novel of firsts—first loves and first endings. The phrase “the first” arises frequently, including “for the first time she considers the possibility that she might wish he were other than he is” [p. 188], and, regarding Beverly’s attentions to Adam, “the first thing he has been reluctant to talk about to Miranda” [p. 202]. What other firsts take place in the novel, and how do they drive the narrative? What do they say about how we come to know ourselves and experience another person?
5. In what ways does Gordon bring to life the novel’s two time periods: 1964–1970 and then 2007? Is one era more alive on the page or are they equally successful at illuminating Adam’s and Miranda’s pasts and presents, as individuals within a generation at the forefront of so many changes?
6. With the exception of the opening, Gordon titles each contemporary chapter with the date, place(s), and a quote. Why do you think she choose this format? Does it act to enrich or distract from your experience of the narrative? Why do you think a quote from Miranda almost always heads the chapters?
7. Do you find meaning in the fact that Adam’s name exists in the reverse spelling of Miranda’s? Adam is, of course, the name of the first man in the Bible, his story beginning before he and Eve taste of the Tree of Knowledge. Do you think Adam’s name fits his character and, if so, in what ways?
8. Questions of self-identity play a fundamental role in the novel. Miranda asks, “Are we fated to always be the people we were? Always making the same mistakes?” [p. 29] and then, at a different moment, wonders “Is this the most important thing that can be said about us, that we are not who we were?” [p. 64]. Perhaps as a way of combining these ideas, she also says that she is “someone to whom, like [Adam], a great many things have happened. So the person I am was the one I was and also another person, perhaps many other persons” [p. 154]. What is Gordon saying about how well we can know ourselves? How is that related to our ability to deeply understand another person? Did Adam and Miranda truly know each other when they were young? Do they see each other, and themselves, more clearly now that they are older? Do you feel you have a confident grasp on your own identity, or do you feel it shifting through the years?
9. In what ways do Adam and Miranda experience the past—is it an ever-present aspect in either of their lives, or does it seem that they don’t often think of it? How do their ideas relate to Yonatan’s, who lets the past go (except for what he cannot escape, his nightmares of the ‘67 war), and Clare, who is perhaps too young to have a past long enough to focus on or forget?
10. Adam and Miranda discuss money much less directly than other topics, though its absence or presence has greatly affected their lives. Miranda has always had money, though it’s unclear if she realizes where her money came from, and how much there is (Adam wonders if she knows it was her mother’s inheritance, not her father’s business acumen). For Adam, money is always a worry—from his youth, when the family tried to keep the cost of his music lessons from him, continuing throughout his life as a teacher and father. What do you see as the role of money in Adam’s and Miranda’s lives separately and when they were together?
11. Spend some time discussing Adam’s and Miranda’s marriages and families, both their families of birth and the ones they have created. Was Miranda fair to her parents, in keeping her distance from them? Why did she feel much closer to Adam’s mother than her own? What does it mean that one of the reasons she married Yonatan was because he was so unlike Adam? Is the same true for Adam, in regard to both Beverly and Clare? What do you think about him having known Clare since she was thirteen? What parts do Adam’s and Miranda’s children, all four of them, and their siblings, Rob and Jo, play in the narrative?
12. Regret is a running thread throughout the novel. Do you think Adam and Miranda feel equal regret for their actions? What do you make of the section in which Miranda says “In order to have had the children we have, we had to lead our lives exactly as we did. Therefore, there can be no regrets” [p. 283] and Adam responds in part by asking “Would it have been better if my son had not been born?” [p. 285]. As someone with or without children, how would you react to their discussion?
13. Adam slept with Beverly twice and believed she was on birth control. Miranda slept with Toby and never told Adam. Adam’s betrayal is assumed by both to be much greater. Why is that the case? Do you believe Miranda when she thinks, but does not say, “I too am guilty of lying, by omission” [p. 232]? Does Miranda believe that she has betrayed Adam? Do their actions bear greater weight because they were each other’s first sexual relationship? When Miranda sleeps with Toby, is the greater betrayal the infidelity of the body or the emotional infidelity of the secret? For Adam, was he betrayed equally by Beverly, or should he assume all responsibility for her pregnancy? What do you make of the scene in which Miranda cuts off her hair, and Adam feels betrayed? “What have you done to me?” [p. 272] Adam asks, to which Miranda replies with the voice of a generation, “To you? I thought it was my hair. My body” [p. 272].
14. Miranda remarks that “forgiveness is irrelevant now because the pain he caused her is long gone and, painless, forgiveness is not difficult, therefore perhaps not worth much” [p. 41]. When considering how she has hurt other people, Miranda says, “We can forgive those who trespass against us. We can’t forgive those we’ve trespassed against” [p. 213]. What does it mean to forgive someone? Is there a need to forgive one’s self? What do you make of Adam’s dismissal of Miranda’s confession that she slept with Toby? “Me? I forgive you? It is I who need forgiveness” [p. 291]. Do you think that Miranda truly forgives Adam? Does Adam forgive himself?
15. Miranda has converted to Judaism, while Adam stays an unbelieving Catholic—“I don’t have it, the ear for faith” [p. 228]—though as a teenager he believed that sleeping with Miranda put him in a state of sin. Is faith an active element in either Adam’s or Miranda’s life? Is it perhaps expressed not through religious faith, but through their perspectives on the purpose of their lives? Or through some other outlet?
16. Adam’s and Miranda’s definitions of what constitutes an ethical and worthy life are different—his music, her saving the world—a divide that began in their youth, and remains their guide to how they see the world. Levi says to Adam, “The question must be not only why do we live but what do we live for? And one of the most important answers, Adam, you must believe me about this, is for beauty. For beauty whose greatness goes on and on” [p. 183]. Adam believes that his musical gift is the way in which he must “make some kind of mark” [p. 52], to “create beauty” [p. 83], while Miranda wants to “relieve suffering” [p. 83]. In the end, Adam “has not achieved fame, success, even, but he has not given over his calling” [p. 9]. Do you think Miranda feels the same way about her work? Does either of them deeply value what the other does, or even understand the other’s work? What is your own definition of a worthy life, and in what ways has that question helped direct your life choices?
17. Do you recognize yourself in any of the characters, particularly with regards to Adam and Miranda, and their spouses, children, or parents? If so, in what ways are you similar, and to what extent do you differ?
18. Adam and Miranda discuss ideas of belief, age, self-identity, beauty, and what it means to live a moral life, among other issues. Gordon is an author who covers these concepts in compelling and complicated ways, in both her fiction and nonfiction. Have you read any of her other books? How do themes of faith, family, love, and redemption operate here and elsewhere in her work?
19. The final words in the novel are Adam’s, as he mirrors Miranda’s about being grateful to “These trees. This light” [p. 306]. Those images, based in the natural world, refer in part to two losses—Miranda’s father, her estrangement from him and the way she is able to miss him through the trees he taught her to name; and Adam’s loss of Beverly, or perhaps more truthfully, Beverly’s inability to exist in the world (her suicide note: “it’s too dark for me” [p. 287]). Why do you think Gordon chose to close The Love of My Youth with these words, and a focus on gratefulness? What was your emotional experience of these final lines, and of the novel as a whole?