The Love of My Youth

The theme of reuniting with a first love, after years of going different ways, is not new. But unlike Anita Shreve’s thoughtful Where or When, or Kristin Hannah’s mysterious On Mystic Lake, Mary Gordon’s The Love of My Youth transports the reader to Rome. As Miranda and Adam get reacquainted after not seeing each other for forty years, their daily walk touring the Eternal City is more inviting than the suspense of discovering the trauma behind their separation.

High school sweethearts who became college lovers, Adam was an aspiring pianist and Miranda a fiery activist in their youth. A betrayal tears them apart, and they have moved on to marry others and have children, with lives that have displaced their dreams. The serendipitous reunion offers a chance to revisit their time together in Rome years ago, and to resolve issues that led them to separate paths. As they wander through famous gardens, fountains, churches, and art, their slow conversations frame their reminiscing while revealing both who they were and who they have become.

The slow dialogue requires attention to catch the inflections, as Gordon tries to use her characters to mark moments they may have misconstrued and may never understand. The thought-provoking inserts are sometimes overdone:

“At some point we will not be here. On this earth. At some point, Miranda and he will be…where. Not here. He takes her hand and kisses it, and they are both embarrassed, so he drops it quickly, and calls the waiter for a check.”

It’s a slow slog as they avoid the elephant in the room. At times, you may wish they would just say what they mean to each other, instead of the italicized thought bubbles Gordon inserts. When their thoughts fall back to their youth, the action has historical context (the sixties) that shaped their lives, and as young hopefuls with potential, their characters seem more remarkable. In the present, the characters fade and Rome becomes the focal point.

After three weeks of angst and touring Rome, Miranda and Adam finally confront each other, and the betrayal is revealed. It’s no surprise by now that they were never the youthful soul mates they envisioned; Gordon’s access to their inner thoughts will have convinced you that they would have made each other miserable.

Villa Borghese

The story was a restful respite after reading Flynn’s Gone Girl; the psychological trauma is soft-pedelled with Gordon, and all is resolved philosophically. Revisiting Rome – the Villa Borghese, the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Campo dia Fiore, the Bocca della Verite (the mouth of truth) – as well as its hidden treasures – La Casina dell’Orologio, Bernini’s saddled elephant, Keats’s grave – was a better story than the fate of the two long-lost lovers.

‘Hey, World, This Crazy Thing Happened Where Someone Put Me in A Book!’

I never liked Elizabeth Gilbert or her self-aggrandizing promotion in her popular book, Eat, Pray, Love, but I was happy she gave Julia Roberts a vehicle to entertain.  In this case, the movie was better than the book.

But when I read Sam Anderson’s review of Luca Spaghetti’s memoir, Un Amico Italiano, in the New York Times Magazine, I had some laugh out loud moments.  Here was someone who agreed that Gilbert’s book was “cutesy (with) Snapple-cap wisdom.”  Anderson’s tongue-in-cheek review of the adventures of the man who toured Gilbert around Rome on a motorbike not only validated my assessment of her book, but actually inspired me to seek out Spaghetti’s – his real name?

Spaghetti is a tax accountant, and should probably keep his day job.  He follows Gilbert’s model and haltingly tells his story in three parts – growing up in Rome, going to America, and back in Rome with “Liz” – eating.

Read Anderson’s essay instead – funny, irreverent, and articulate.

Sam Anderson’s Eat, Pray, Love, Repeat                                                                                       Bonus Feature: Sternbergh on ‘Reading Sam Anderson’s Essay’

Cleopatra: A Life

In her biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff clearly confirms that Cleopatra was no Elizabeth Taylor, but the Egyptian queen made up for what she lacked in beauty with shrewd intelligence and cunning intuition to get what she wanted – a diva after all.

Cleopatra: A Life is compelling and well-researched – with over 60 pages of notes and references – as well as a surprisingly easy read.   From teenage queen to the mother of Julius Caesar’s son, and finally to her torrid relationship with Mark Antony, Cleopatra is a competent ruler who successfully used her facility with languages, her grounding in Greek learning,  with her power and influence to protect and embellish her own holdings – for over two decades – longer than her ancestor, Alexander the Great.

By modern standards the civilizations in 50 B. C. were barbaric – intermarrying, killing off relatives to maintain power and land – not to mention the severed heads on display. Rome was all-powerful, always looking for another conquest,  and Alexander the Great’s progeny in Egypt, with the largest library in the world and excessive wealth, was on Rome’s wish list.  Cleopatra “made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor…”

Despite Schiff’s overly precise description of the display of wealth in Cleopatra’s lavish entertaining – details worthy of a scriptwriter – she provides an amazing clarification of how it all really went down – before Hollywood.   You will gain a new respect for Cleopatra as a clever strategist and brilliant politician – not the “whore queen” labeled by prolific Roman writers – but certainly a queen to beware and a woman to know.

“We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty… and was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank…incomparable…”