Cover to Cover

The Love of My Youth
Mary Gordon

Former lovers, nearly 40 years estranged, meet every day for several weeks in Rome to walk and become reacquainted. This novel’s fairly rigid structure allows for conversations and inner dialogs that wander down all sorts of fruitful paths, exploring the relationship between young and old iterations of self; the influence of family and circumstance on an individual; the effects of talent, personality, and luck on the course of life; and the power of art. The protagonists, a gentle pianist and an impatient social activist, are intricately realized, and the backstory of their youthful love and its wounding demise provides the narrative drive. Gordon’s evocation of thoughtful college students in the late ’60s (her own college era) is exceptionally nuanced and convincing.

Lives and Letters
Robert Gottlieb

Supremely civilized in his taste and outlook, arch, skeptical, at times sardonic (what discerning mind could fail to be so in this world of ours?), Gottlieb has assembled a collection of his uniformly scintillating essays (nearly all review-essays). He possesses both a generous curiosity and a sharp eye for cant, and here he coolly takes on the careers, achievements, and private lives of figures ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to Bruno Bettelheim, from Margot Fonteyn to Houdini, from Scott Peterson (the wife-killer) to Lillian Gish, from the Leavises to Lady Di. The book’s compass is wide, but Gottlieb, the former editor in chief of Knopf and of The New Yorker (he was the editor of or was otherwise acquainted with many of the subjects here), concentrates on those figures from a brief, shining cultural moment, the period roughly from 1920 to 1960, when art and entertainment commingled, happily or bitterly (creating the movies of Hollywood’s golden age, the music of Porter and Rodgers and Hart, and most of America’s other lasting cultural achievements); when ballet and modern dance were cynosures of urban sophistication; when everyone went to Broadway. The keen appraisals in Lives and Letters leave the perceptive reader with no doubt that, culturally speaking, it was a better time. But Gottlieb is no nostalgist: he’s too shrewd to be taken in by the calculating, pseudo-classy Katharine Hepburn (“She’s superb, everyone agrees, in Alice Adams, in which she triumphantly capitalizes on her most annoying qualities”), and he shows that the works of James Thurber and George S. Kaufman, as observant and pleasing as they continue to be, aren’t for the ages. Of course, what remains so attractive about so much popular culture from that golden moment is that it was at once so much more sophisticated and so much less pretentious than so much of our own. This stylish, deeply entertaining book could not be the work of a young man: Gottlieb knows too much, and has seen it all.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim
Jonathan Coe

In this satirical novel about alienation in a world of electronic hyperconnection, Maxwell Sim (as in SIM card) wanders from the strikingly bland town of Watford, England, to the wilds of northern Scotland, ostensibly to deliver some environmentally correct toothbrushes to the Shetlands, but in fact to discover himself. Max’s lifelong efforts to remain as conventional and superficial as possible so as to ward off self-awareness are poignant and hilarious, especially in an establishing soliloquy. That Coe, one of Britain’s most appealing novelists, can turn an almost unwaveringly dull person into an incisively observed, compelling, and sympathetic character is testament to his prodigious skills. But the novel collapses under its strained plot. Ultimately, too, Max’s difficulty connecting with people arises not from the way we live now but from one of the most old-fashioned sources. What are we to make of that?