What can you say about a pregnant ballerina who decides to have an abortion? Rather too much, as it turns out, in this fairly lugubrious fourth novel from the NBA-nominated author of The Diagnosis (2000).
Fifty-two-year-old Charles, our narrator, is a professor of English at a “leafy” liberal arts college who revisits his past and raises the ghost of his callow younger self when he attends his 30th college reunion. Lightman works in some intriguing material in the early pages, detailing middle-aged Charles’s interests in a biography of a sexually voracious but romantically unhappy German astronomer (who “made eros from science”), a fleetingly described feminist novel about women’s friendships, and his own not-uninteresting ruminations about the relativity and mysteriousness of the phenomenon of time. But Reunion eventually settles into a redundant replay of Charles’s college years during the time of organized protest against the Vietnam War: specifically, his love affair with Juliana, a gorgeous ballet student who simultaneously welcomes his sexual advances and holds him at a carefully maintained emotional distance. Charles is a potentially very interesting character: a collegiate wrestler and lover of poetry (his thesis subject is Emily Dickinson), but Lightman subordinates the more interesting aspects of this character’s mind and heart to Charles’s obsessive passion for the elusive Juliana. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the sadder-but-wiser older man observing “the beautiful twenty-two-year-old boy, full of magic and life and the power of not knowing the future”—especially in a climactic “meeting” between Charles’s two selves. But there’s too little variation overall from the central story’s very nearly suffocating abstraction, sentimentality, and banality. And there’s none of the conceptual excitement that made this author’s earlier books so stimulating.
Love Story for intellectuals.