After recently publishing more nonfiction (Reading Jesus, 2009, etc.), Gordon (The Stories of Mary Gordon, 2006, etc.) returns to the novel form in this examination of first love revisited.
Miranda is an epidemiologist in her late 50s living in Berkley. Alone in Rome after a conference, she is invited to a dinner party where she talks to her high-school and college sweetheart Adam for the first time since they broke up in their 20s. Adam, who once had soaring musical ambitions but now teaches music at a private school, is in Rome with his musically gifted 18-year-old daughter, who has a grant to study there. The question of rekindling their old affair smolders but never ignites. Both are happily married: Miranda to an Israeli doctor with whom she’s raised two sons; Adam to his much younger second wife, the mother of his daughter—his first wife, the cause of his rift with Miranda, committed suicide. With time on their hands, Miranda and Adam agree to meet for daily walks. Each chapter takes place in a park or at one of Rome’s beautiful and historic sights, where the former lovers eat a lot of ice cream and delicious Italian meals. But any travelogue quality is eclipsed by ever so serious discourse between the two as they ruminate on the nature of youth and age, on their different approaches to life, on whether the perfect love they shared slipped away through missteps or because it was not meant to last. The daughter of WASP privilege, Miranda has always been an idealistic political activist, aware but unable to overcome her tendency toward self-righteous political correctness. From working-class Italian immigrant stock, Adam committed his life to music from an early age, and, despite his own disappointments, he remains slightly otherworldly and a bit haughty about his aesthetic sensitivity.
Despite the elegant prose Gordon fans expect, both Miranda’s self-consciousness and Adam’s smugness infect the author, causing the novel and its characters to remain slightly off-putting.