This short novel tells the story of a professor of English who on impulse decides to attend this thirty year college reunion. In the best tradition of college reunions, all his former classmates seem to be old, fat, and miserable, as indeed he is himself. He wonders into an empty room, and remembers his first love, who was a ballerina named Juliana. This memory sequence abruptly and unexpectedly then consumes the whole rest of the book.
If you think it'd be difficult to keep a flashback going over two hundred pages, you'd be right, but Mr Lightman struggles valiantly.
The memory is a compelling story: as a student he fell madly in love with this Juliana, who was obsessed with ballet. She got pregnant, and he desperately wanted her to keep the baby, despite the fact that this would likely ruin her career. She disappeared, and he never saw her again.
Most interesting to me in this book was Lightman's concept of life as a river, which can split suddenly. You meet a beautiful girl in a park, for example, and do or do not take her number; and that's a split. It could be your life ought to have changed, but you were so used to the path you were already on that you did even notice that the river had branched until you were too far downstream to go back. A very worrying and very probably accurate picture of the choices we make.
We've talked before in this blog (here) about how I really can't bear a certain brand of contemporary literary fiction, which tends to involve excessive use of the present tense, a lot of prepositions, and the ending of every paragraph on a profound, or - just as bad - a poetic note. Curiously, this kind of fiction seems to be dominated by men, and Mr Lightman unfortunately undeniably falls most horribly into this category. I'll let him speak for himself:
The four ballerinas move across the floor like a fluttering of wings, back and forth, around and around, changing shape again and again. At times they became a sequence of snowflakes. At times they are caged birds, beating for freedom. Angles and curves. Solids and lace. Filigrees of light trickling through trees. His heart cannot hold all the images and sounds.
In response, I can only say: barf.