Thirteen years separate the publication of After You’ve Gone and Doris Lessing’s Love, Again. Surely other novels exist about the discovery of love in later life, but these are two that stand out for me. When Doris Lessing’s book came out in 1996, it seemed bold. Told in the voice of a sixty-five year old woman who didn’t imagine loving again but who became swept up in not one but two affairs of the heart, the story suggested hope and insight for baby-boomers heading into the seniors’ curve. Recently, I came across Jeffrey Lent’s novel told from a male perspective.
Henry Dorn’s son (Robert) and wife (Olivia) die in a car crash. He is bereft. His two grown daughters (Alice and Polly) try to comfort him but they have their own families and cannot fill the void in his heart. He begins a quest, first travelling to his birth-home in Nova Scotia seeking answers to family questions; then back in New York, he takes a steamer to Amsterdam hoping to discover older Dorn roots and to start life anew. He is lost in the way Rebecca Solnit describes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” In her book, Solnit explores the question philosophically. In After You’ve Gone, Lent explores it through fiction.
Ultimately, like Love, Again, After You’ve Gone is a later-life love story that plunges into deep waters where discoveries of the self are made. His journey is poignant. There’s the emotional journey of the first year:
The worst moment has not been the anniversary of the deaths, which was a peculiarly quiet afternoon of gentle spring rain, the day so long anticipated that its arrival brought no sudden thrust of grief but rather was almost consolation—in that year he’d passed all number of possible anniversaries that were unmarked and this was another he was helpless against, and the world went on raining….Ten days later he disembarked at Penn Station and porter and trunks in tow hailed a cab and set off for the pier and the Veendam II.
That first year slips by quickly enough. It’s aboard the steamer that he spots Lydia Pearce and where renewal begins:
A woman in the tight knee-length and sleeveless calisthenics outfit suddenly came upon him, loping in a steady slapping of bare feet….She glanced at him as she passed but the glance was empty as if she were looking toward some far distance greater even than the horizon. He…watched her go.
You know where this is going (and it does lead there). While love affairs are as old as the novel itself, Lent avoids clichéd traps. He gives us a beautiful read with a few twists and surprises. This is not a novel for the bereft alone, it offers insight and perhaps even wisdom for each of us into the very human ways of the heart.
Available through your local bookstore or online: After You’ve Gone