Faced with the depredations of aging — caring for an ailing partner, enduring one’s own ailments, downsizing from a beloved home — some women turn to support groups, knitting, or wine. Susan Gubar, not surprisingly, turned to books.
Gubar is that rarest of birds, a famous English professor. Best known for her 1979 feminist classic, “The Madwoman in the Attic,’’ she has written and edited nearly two dozen volumes on topics including race in America, the Holocaust, violent pornography, Judas Iscariot, and her own advanced ovarian cancer. In her most recent book, “Late-Life Love,’’ Gubar turns her fertile, critical mind and vast bibliographic knowledge to “the physical and psychological, the sexual and familial challenges of later-life love,” that is, love found later in life, like her own second marriage.
Painfully divorced from her first husband in her forties, Gubar basks in the second chance of her relationship with Don Gray, a colleague and close friend turned clandestine lover, then beloved husband when his wife dies soon after Gubar’s divorce. But as “Late-Life Love’’ begins, Don, who at 87 is 17 years older than Gubar, begins to decline, then falls on the basement stairs, tearing a tendon and entering a prolonged period of recovery. Faced with “a subtle recalibration of our relationship. He had taken care of me, especially during the past seven years of cancer . . . now I would be taking care of him,” Gubar contemplates “the sense of an ending that saturates the powerful affections of love in later life.” She pursues that idea in a course of reading that she hopes will not only affirm the value of late-life love, but provide her with models for how to live out the next stage of her own.
The chapters that follow are organized loosely by time, texts, and themes, though it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the connections are purposeful or coincidental. As Don recovers from his second tendon operation, for instance, Gubar finds it “urgent to escape into fiction, to choose a substantial, engrossing book,” and tackles “Love in the Time of Cholera,’’ “the grand slam of the late-life love tradition.” Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece affirms the viability of late-life sexuality, which “requires a sense of humor as well as patience” but raises questions about the lovers’ “degeneration,” “deterioration,” and solipsistic isolation.
Meanwhile, the chapter also considers physical therapy, a Valentine’s dinner date, getting married “at the country law building that also serves as a jail,” and Don’s first post-surgery shower on the day the Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage.
Gubar’s reading of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days’’ as both “geriatric farce” and a powerful rendition of the persistence of intimacy is wonderful. More predictably, if still incisively, she finds that novels by Philip Roth and John Updike reveal the “late-life lechery” that stirs older men to chase younger women in “futile protest against the wounds of aging,” while Colette’s Cheri novels and a pair of Doris Lessing works suggest that older women tend to give up young lovers for their own good. Vita Sackville-West’s less familiar novel “All Passion Spent’’ features the scheming adult children who can threaten late-life love, leaving Gubar grateful for her and Don’s reasonable daughters.
Wherever there is to go, Gubar goes there: the bathroom, where she cleans out her own exploding ostomy and helps Don with his morning ablutions; the family, where she bares the literary and real-life tensions between adult children and their parents; the bedroom, where she finds passionate fictional love-making and cozy spooning with Don; and current events, where she worries about mass shootings, global warming, and Trump’s rise.
It is easy to connect to much of this book, especially if one is a reader. I often found myself Googling poems Gubar mentioned or noting books I wanted to read for myself. Anyone who has cared for an aging spouse or parent will nod at her descriptions of learning to transfer from bed to wheelchair, or finding shoes that are both wide enough to accommodate swollen feet and easy to put on. She also nails the profound irritation such care can generate, no matter how beloved its object.
Less compelling are the parade of friends who come and go, with little in the way of introduction. And while academic readers will nod knowingly at references to Carolyn Heilbrun, Gayatri Spivak, and the Modern Language Association convention, others may not.
As “Late-Life Love’’ comes to an end, its events cohere into narrative arc. Don recovers, as does a sick grandchild. The big house in the country is sold, and a new smaller home renovated. Gubar comes to terms with the loss of a longtime friendship. Late-life love is affirmed as a meaningful phenomenon.
In one of Gubar’s final epiphanies, she realizes that her “passionate bond with Don is based . . . on our mutual . . . romance with literature,” an insight that comes as no surprise to readers who have heard her declare that “Nothing compares to [the] elation” of figuring out a book (nothing?). In the end, this book offers a love poem not just to Don and to love, but to books.