Monday, May 09, 2011

The Great Outdoors and What I'm Reading Now: Mary Gordon's The Love of My Youth

I've been outdoors the last few days, gardening, soaking up the sun, and taking long bicycle rides.  Well, it's really summer today:  it's 88 degrees as I write this.  I went to the woods today and was mesermized by the blooming redbuds.  Then I got lost in a book.  Mary Gordon's well-written new novel, The Love of My Youth, should have been a perfect companion. 

Except there's one thing:  I often am bemused by Catholic fiction.  Gordon is famous for her Catholic novels, but I find something slightly saccharine about her Catholic characters. Although she explores the gritty side of sexual relationships and the challenges of contemporary Catholic life, her blunt realism doesn't resonate with me.  I admire her lovely writing, but her books never click with me.  There are some interesting parallels between Gordon's Catholic women and Philip Roth's Jewish men. 

The plot of The Love of My Youth is simple.  Two former lovers meet for the first time in 40 years.  Miranda, an epidemiologist, is in Rome for a conference, and Adam, a musician, is living with his daughter, a music student.   At a dinner party, the hostess's sadistic mother-in-law attacks Miranda's liberal politics, and Miranda accidentally crushes a wine glass with her hands.  (The wine symbolic of...something religious?)  Adam helps her clean her cuts, and the two leave together before dinner.  They decide to sight-see together for a few hours a day during the remainder of their stay. They are not interested in renewing their love affair--or at least not in the four-fifths of the novel I've finished--but the encounters do help them remember both good and painful events from the past. 

The structure of this novel is ambitious and daring:  part travelogue, part philosophical dialogues, and part flashbacks to their young love.  The chapters are headed by date, place, and topic of conversation.  For instance, one chapter is titled:

Wednesday, October 10

The Villa Borghese

"What Have We Given up for an Ideal of Health?"

Miranda, a convert to Judaism, is impatient, practical, and sometimes unkind to Adam.  She has spent her life working in public health, married to a man from Israel who fought in the Six-Day War, and raising two sons in a healthy, unhysterical atmosphere.  She has never quite quelled her anger at Adam for the end of their affair. 
"How ridiculous, she thinks, keeping alive the grievances of nearly half a century, even the irritations of the day before.  With a new acuteness, she feels in the bones of her back the two words 'time' and 'past.' She thinks of a hymn her mother sang sometimes...did her mother miss churchgoing, was it another of her capitations to her husband..."

Adam, a Catholic, is patient and brooding, regards himself as a failure, but is very generous with his time and knowledge.  Their conversations revolve around the art galleries, restaurants, churches, fountains, and other sites they visit.   And then they take a philosophical bent.

The travelogue is interspersed with flashbacks to their past, so we see the whole span of their love affair.

There is a Latin error.  When will copy-editors learn to dial 1-800-LAT-INEM (LATIN EMergency)?  No, honestly, they should contact me. 

Miranda sees the Latin words Vitae laudae on a sculpture.  She modestly insists she's forgotten all her Latin, and, yes, that's true, because there is no such word as "laudae."  Miranda thinks the phrase means "Praise life."  Is Gordon thinking vitam laudate (which means "Praise life")?   Or is she thinking vitae laus (praise of life), or perhaps vitae laudes (praises of life?.    Did the copy editor make the error?  

They should really proofread these phrases.

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