NICHOLAS DELBANCO is admirably prolific. He has written 16 books of fiction and edited seven others, including anthologies of writing by winners of the Hopwood Awards, which he oversees at the University of Michigan. And he has written seven nonfiction books, including "Running in Place," a delectable memoir of life in Provence, where his early neighbors included James Baldwin; and "Anywhere Out of the World," a set of essays ostensibly about traveling to spots like Namibia, Afghanistan and two Bellagios -- in Italy and Las Vegas -- but actually meditations on life, death and literature.
Delbanco's fluency in writing about the quotidian delights and challenges of travel is one of the pleasures of his new novel, "Spring and Fall," which traces the trajectory of lovers who meet first in 1962 in Cambridge, Mass. Lawrence is a Harvard undergrad, son of a Scarsdale banker; Hermia a Radcliffe student, daughter of a painter of Jackson Pollock's stature. That season in Cambridge, as the two become inseparable, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert are testing psilocybin on Harvard students; LSD is a new drug of choice; Joan Baez, Tom Rush and Bob Dylan are singing in the local clubs. "The world was young, or so it seemed, the world was theirs to conquer." But the relationship sours, and the two separate.
Hermia moves to New York, works in publishing, is involved in protests against the Vietnam War. Her father has died after an alcohol-fueled accident. At 30 she inherits his house on Cape Cod and millions worth of paintings. A few years later she marries, has a daughter she adores, then must flee an increasingly abusive and dangerous husband. She builds her life around her musically talented daughter in a New England village where she hopes her estranged spouse cannot find her.
Lawrence, as a graduate student with dreams of becoming a visionary architect, visits Cape Cod with a renowned professor, Serge Chermayeff, who discourses on Bauhaus as he and students walk the beach. They are near the town of Truro, where Lawrence had often spent weekends with Hermia. After Chermayeff is dismissive toward his remarks about the need to create scarcity in the market (What does that have to do with architecture? the professor asks), Lawrence lags behind. In the years to come, he remembers this landscape, "the tide spawn and the clustered weed, the students walking on ahead and cold wind in his hair." Even then, he had intimations of falling behind, of throwing away or perhaps never being presented with the possibility of a career as an architect of consequence.
Lawrence's first wife is an unstable woman who is out of his life shortly after their daughter is born (handily, her parents then get him his first big job at the famed firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill in San Francisco). At 27 he is single again and serving his apprenticeship, learning the difference between theoretical plans and actual designs for demanding clients. He adjusts, but not without poignant moments. At dinner one night, his visiting sister says, "you fall in love once only and all the rest is play acting, a way to pass the time," and he thinks then of Hermia, "his name for what was lost."
Lawrence heads to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a teaching job, marries again, has two sons, divorces again after his wife discovers his affairs. By age 60 he is a tenured professor of architecture, nearing retirement, solitary, often bored. His health is beginning to deteriorate.
In 2004, Hermia and Lawrence meet again, by accident, aboard a cruise ship. As the pair enjoy meals and flirtation aboard ship and on shore, the dormant and not so dormant volcanoes they pass -- Etna, Stromboli, Vesuvius -- evoke various stages of passion, smoldering or not.
Lawrence has been urged to take the cruise by his doctor, after angioplasty. He has been feeling depressed, stale and world weary. Seeing Hermia again opens a door into the future.
Hermia, who was pressured into the trip by well-meaning friends, is less sanguine about the possibility of reconnection after 42 years.
Will they simply have a shipboard fling? Or will they find a way to bridge the decades and the distance from Ann Arbor, where Lawrence has built an academic career, and Cape Cod, where Hermia has settled into the home where her colorful mother and father once entertained a bohemian crowd.
Delbanco sets his neatly constructed plot in motion, and although it gathers emotional power as it moves toward the ending, there are a few glitches along the way. The coincidental meeting of the two former lovers on deck is acceptable, but an earlier coincidental encounter between Lawrence and Hermia's grown daughter pushes credibility. And there are some instances of language -- "And now in the annealing dark they touched each other, probing, uncertain, tentative, until it was as though the love they'd made when young returned as body memory.... Time stopped." -- that undercut the subtlety of the love scenes.
In interwoven flashbacks, Delbanco sketches out the early years of this love story and the separate but parallel directions Hermia and Lawrence took after they left college. Despite the acuteness of the present-day shipboard romance, it is the passages of "Spring and Fall" that describe the years Lawrence and Hermia have not shared -- the failed marriages and painful parenthood, the failed ambitions and lost possibilities -- that gather the force to bring this novel to an unexpected and moving conclusion.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributor to the National Book Critics Circle Board blog, Critical Mass.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times