In 2006, Nicholas Delbanco published “Spring and Fall,’’ a novel about two 60-somethings who rekindle their college romance after meeting on a cruise ship. Eight years later, Delbanco has added a second half to the story and published both as a new, longer novel, “The Years.’’ With this expansion, a book about the tremulous joy of second chances, loss redeemed, and later-in-life blossoming becomes a bleak meditation on the fragility of happiness, an unmasking of romantic illusion, and a terrifying reminder of inexorable mortality.
Book 1 of “The Years’’ (a tightened version of the earlier novel) begins in 2004 aboard the MS Diana, as it sets sail from Rome. Lawrence, a 64-year-old architect and professor recovering from minor heart surgery, has flown from Detroit to take a trip on the advice of his doctor. Lawrence dreams of “heedless health and early love” but wakes to muse ruefully on his aging body and the fact that his students see him as “an old man being idiotic.” Then, while gazing at pictures of prostitutes in the Luparium (a loaded set-up if there ever was one), he unexpectedly meets up with his college love, Hermia.
Book 1 proceeds to alternate between the present-day rekindled romance and a chronicle of the 42 years since their love affair at Harvard. Their earlier ardent courtship was almost hyperbolically romantic, replete with paintings, poems, and plays. There’s “no single reason that they broke apart.” In the years that follow, both struggle through unsatisfying lives: marrying and divorcing unstable or unappealing people, not achieving the career success they’d wanted (Lawrence) or having no career at all (Hermia), becoming estranged from their children.
The tentative arc of Lawrence and Hermia’s revived romance, the alternately thrilling and terrifying prospect of beginning again, is beautifully presented. At first, they “avoided . . . the difficult subjects, the disappointment and trouble,” then slowly open up to each other about their trials and tragedies, including Hermia’s deep sadness about her daughter, Patricia, who’d run away more than 10 years earlier.
Book 1 ends with Patricia returning and Hermia asking Lawrence to stay at her house on Cape Cod; Book 2 describes what happens after he decides to stay. Lawrence and Hermia settle into a comfortable routine of gardening, walks, and nightly bottles of wine. He proposes and they marry. Superstitious Hermia, however, frets that “their luck . . . [is] too good to continue.”
Thus begins the Jobian withdrawal of fortune. Hermia’s mother’s dementia worsens and she dies; an angry drug-dealing neighbor threatens the bucolic serenity of their Cape Cod paradise; Patricia frets that she’s inherited her father’s madness and that despite her marriage to a rich man she’ll never be happy. Lawrence’s health problems return. As Hermia loses places, and names, and where it was she meant to travel, Delbanco’s novel becomes a pitiless investigation of the art of losing.
At one point, Hermia thinks of the conventional “stories of courtship”: “old friends would meet and marry and their love, long dormant, bloom.” But then there is the real moral: “ ‘happily ever after’. . . was not the way true stories ended.’’ Delbanco seems to have been uncomfortable leaving a tale that was less than “true” in this sense; his decision to add a second part seems intended to restore a rigorous realism, to emphasize that “what happen[s] . . . in the last of life [is] rapid and annihilating.” We may know happiness, and even restored happiness, but it will inevitably drain away from us.
Delbanco pushes it a bit too far, however, as Hermia and Lawrence’s declines would be more believably universal were they a decade or more older (they seem much frailer than most 60-somethings or even 70-somethings). But in dispelling gauzy romanticism and exposing the vulnerability of later-in-life love, he succeeds in giving us a frightening evocation of aging.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’