It isn’t often that I find a novel to recommend to you that portrays characters our age in a way that’s relevant, realistic, and insightful about aging and relationships. As a reader, I want to connect with characters and plot lines that I can relate to at this time of my life (age 71 as I write this) via beautifully crafted fiction.
The Years by Nicholas Delbanco is a splendid example of the kind of book I love to read. It’s literary fiction, not a quick or mindless read. It’s achingly honest about aging.
How did it happen, Lawrence wondered, that the person in the mirror was sprouting liver spots and wrinkles and hair in his nostrils and ears?
You’ll invest some brain power in following the non-chronological sequencing. We meet Lawrence and Hermia when they re-meet in 2004 on a cruise ship after more than 40 years apart. He’s 64; she’s 63. The book flits back and forth from 2004 to their past. We learn how they met and fell in love in college, how they broke up and drifted apart, different relationships that shaped each of them as they journeyed through their lives, and the scars and regrets they carry with them.
They leaned toward each other, pressed against each other, and she wondered what her breasts would feel like if he kissed them as he used to, and what would happen next. She saw them in the mirror, two bent gray heads adjacent in the ornate gilt-framed glass, saw them touching lips and cheeks as though performing for the camera in some sort of time-lapse photograph, a present overlay upon the past.
Yes, we can anticipate that this chance meeting will lead to a renewed love connection, but the book is still not predictable. In the latter half of the book, we move forward through the time after they reconnect. There are surprises, which I won’t reveal, and even the predictable parts are nuanced, never trite.
It’s rare to find a novel that speaks realistically about love and aging and includes sex. The sex scenes are tender, slow to unfold, and not graphic. For example:
They had been passionate together the way the young are passionate, and nothing in her life before had readied her for how they fit together or how she, holding him, felt … That passion was not spent. It was spent in the physical sense, of course; she could no longer manage, and he could not manage, the revels of the young … But it was like The Tempest; it was everything restored, made whole, old treacheries forgiven and old arguments resolved. What had been lost was found. They were gentle together now, slow. It was strange to be so much in love with someone she had loved before and known so well and parted from and then spent more than forty years not knowing….
The Amazon ratings are mixed, and I’d love to know the age breakdown for those who loved and those who were bored by this novel. I suspect that the negative reviews were by younger readers or those who don’t have patience for literary fiction that is slow to unfold. At our age, we know that life is slow to unfold, and we don’t need to rush a book any more than we have to rush sex these days! I can’t imagine readers in their sixties and beyond being unmoved by this novel.
If what I’ve written here intrigues you, I hope you’ll read The Years and post your own comments.
|Nicholas Delbanco, born 1942