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During her wedding, at the moment when the minister asked if either she or her groom knew of any reason why they shouldn't be joined, Shirley Abbott wanted to cry out, "I am not good wife material. I have been spoiled by too much reading and by the movies and by listening to the opera on Saturday afternoons ... I have a different notion of what life should be than the duties of a sanctified household. My ideas about love are insane."
Although her marriage lasted decades and produced two adored daughters, it wasn't filled with the glorious, maddening passion Abbott yearned for from the day, at age 11, when she first saw the 1945 film A Song to Remember, about the dashing, cross-dressing novelist George Sand and her tubercular lover, Frederic Chopin. Abbott's new memoir, Love's Apprentice, traces the history of her longing for a love as thrilling and perilous as the doomed union of Tristan and Isolde, as fatal and glamorous as Don José's hankering for Carmen. She nursed it through a brief lesbian affair in college, a year abroad in Paris, early adulthood building a career as an editor in New York City, a bohemian interlude as a newlywed in Greenwich Village, a long suburban dormancy and finally a savored reawakening as she shook off the bonds of matrimony in late middle age.
If Abbott's craving for "the love that is outside morality, the fever that made death preferable to life" was "insane," what she saw as her other option, the fate of "properly married, properly aproned wives," struck her as safe, dull and more or less unavoidable. In other words, she was a bright, imaginative American woman coming of age in the middle of the 20th century and chafing, with an inchoate dissatisfaction, against the tidy, tiresome strictures of bourgeois life -- Emma Bovary with brains and a bit more wiggle room. Not an extraordinary story, but you don't really need that when you can write as gracefully and engagingly as Abbott.
The treat, though, of Love's Apprentice is less one of style than of perspective. At 60, Abbott flies back to Paris, to consummate a crush left dangling in her youth. The two old friends come together, couple with a desire whose strength surprises them both, dally in an affair of Parisian perfection and at last Abbott gets it right. Her lover tentatively suggests something a bit more permanent and she demurs. The only way to attain the ideal romance is to end it at its peak: "Incomplete love, unsanctified love, might be the only complete and sanctified love there was." It takes 60 years spent in the pursuit of such a mad paradox to achieve Abbott's exquisite balance, the rich blend of amusement, tolerance, skepticism and celebration with which she regards her own quest. True love doesn't always wait at the end of such a journey but something just as precious -- call it wisdom -- surely does. -- SALON, May 14, 1998