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LOVE IN THE TIME OF YOUTH

The most alluring part of Alan Lightman’s novels is their language. Lightman writes beautifully and evocatively. This book is no exception. His prose often has the quality of music. But this is not to suggest that Lightman’s novels ignore the larger questions. This novel is about memory and how it shapes the making of an identity.

The protagonist of this new novel, Charles, is a middle-aged professor. He was in his youth a poet with potential. On an impulse, he decides to go back to his old college for a reunion. Once on the campus where he spent his youth, the memories of his senior year come flooding back to him, a year that dramatically changed his life.

The tedium of the reunion for Charles is relieved by his virtual reliving of his senior year. The memories of that year revolve around and cling to Juliana, a ballet dancer. She is as enigmatic as she is beautiful and she struggles to keep on with her dance lessons by working as a waitress at night at a grotty little diner in New York. Charles’s university town is a little way away from the city and he comes in every week to spend time with Juliana.

Lightman thus describes Charles’s first view of Juliana at dance practice: “He cannot take his eyes from her. Standing on the toes of one foot, her free leg rises and points to the side like an arrow, one arm drapes behind while another flows upward in a single line. She is a mixture of angles and curves. Seconds later she has transformed herself into a different shape.’’

After midnight, when her waitressing was over, they went back to the dressing room of the dance studio where they made love. “Without speaking, she undresses herself, slowly, then him. He feels himself trembling, and she holds him. Holds him against her smooth skin. They make love leaning against the wall. Her body is fragile, supple, perfect. He thinks that she was made for him…Her ocean pours through him, he drowns in her, he wants all of her, drinks all of her piercing and sweet. He drowns and is glad in his drowning. His own release is so strong, so impossible, that from its pinnacle he falls into a deep oblivion.”

One day Juliana disappears. She was pregnant. Charles is not sure the child is his. But her disappearance hits her. He never recovers from it. At the reunion, with Juliana and her memory returning, Charles thinks of the child, now perhaps thirty-years old. He never did trace Juliana. Perhaps she did not have the child. Which possibility is worse' A thirty-year-old who doesn’t know his/her father' Or an aborted child' Charles doesn’t know. Charles only knows that he thinks of Juliana and the child everyday and that in his senior year, he lost everything.

Lightman tells Charles’s story. It is poignant: the story of a young and unreconciled love. The love is set in the context of the turmoil in US campuses over the war in Vietnam. The protests against the war, like Charles’s love for Juliana is full of the hopefulness of youth. Charles’s self-examination at the reunion has the quality of a vision. The memories have a haunting clarity. The descriptions are vivid. Is there a hint of autobiography here'

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