February 05, 2009


As Time Goes By. By Abigail Trafford. Basic Books. $25.95.

We’ll Always Have Paris. By Ray Bradbury. William Morrow. $24.99.

     The iconic 1942 film Casablanca, and the song "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld that is a touchstone of the movie, continue to captivate American authors, as evidenced in these two very different books – each of which seeks to connect to readers through the same classic images and sounds. Abigail Trafford’s nonfictional As Time Goes By is about the new American way of love – specifically, love among the graying members of an aging population. Trafford, columnist and former health editor of The Washington Post and author of Crazy Time and My Time, uses the first-person accounts of numerous members of the over-50 set – only some of whom insist on having their names changed – to recount developing attitudes toward long-term marriage, divorce, rediscovery of old flames, and much more. When Trafford writes of an 84-year-old widow who meets a new man and subsequently confides to her daughter, “I went to the moon and back,” you realize this is no growing-old-gracefully tome; when she talks about long-term marriages ending “with a whimper, not a bang,” you realize she is describing new relationship models that do not fit the assumed societal norms of the past. Trafford’s book’s subtitle – “Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity” – really tells only part of her book’s story. She talks about the inevitable health issues associated with aging, and the way being coupled – or uncoupled – can affect them. She analyzes the many reasons for “gray divorce.” She talks about being struck by Cupid’s arrow at midlife or older, when “here you are, about to receive Social Security and behaving like a lovesick puppy” – and what can go wrong if the object of your affection is unavailable or just lacks the same level of interest. “The way you were when you started out often bears little resemblance to the present,” Trafford writes, and it is in the difference between what was and what is that relationships deteriorate, crumble and re-form. The options for love in later years are many and varied, says Trafford, and so are the pitfalls (although she neglects to discuss sexually transmitted diseases – an issue at all ages nowadays). One of Trafford’s important points is that many people are determined not to “settle” for less than an ideal, but settling is in fact a necessity, involving “accepting the other person as she or he really is – and finding a comfort zone of closeness and pleasure together.” But that does not mean accepting a slow (sometimes not so slow) deterioration of a long-term relationship: “The imperative of living longer is renewal. For many, love is an agent of transformation.” As Time Goes By has the power to transform the way people 50 and older see their love lives – and the way those of younger generations perceive the couplings and recouplings of their elders.

     There are couplings, uncouplings and transformations in Ray Bradbury’s latest book of short stories, too, but We’ll Always Have Paris does not show that we’ll always have Bradbury at the very high level of emotion and intelligence that he has reached so often in the past. With 22 tales in 210 pages, this book represents rapid-fire Bradbury, although individual stories within it manage to be expansive (a Bradbury trademark) even within just a few pages. Some of the stories have the rare mixture of poetry and potency that is Bradbury at his best: “Massiniello Pietro,” the sensitive tale of a man who just won’t fit into society; “When the Bough Breaks,” a highly unusual work that turns out to be a ghost story about conception; and “The Reincarnate,” perhaps the most sympathetic-to-the-undead zombie story ever written. Other stories have promising premises but don’t quite work: “Un-pillow Talk,” in which lovers try to think their way back to the pre-intimacy friendship that, Bradbury indicates, is purer and finer; and “Fly Away Home,” the sole science-fiction story in the book, which suggests that only the power of old-fashioned, small-town living can overcome the inherent loneliness of space exploration. And a few tales simply fall flat, including the title story, a sort-of-mystery about what might or might not be a sort-of homosexual sort-of relationship; “A Literary Encounter,” which tries to be amusing in the tale of a husband too influenced by what he reads but which comes across as merely smug; and “America,” the final piece in the book, a prose poem in which Bradbury uncharacteristically devolves into cliché (“You miss the forest for the trees”). At his best – in this book and in general – Bradbury is a poet of the prosaic, his reminiscences of simpler times resonating even with readers who have never been to a small Midwestern town or been captivated by now-vanished radio serials. There are glimmers of Bradbury’s unique excellence in We’ll Always Have Paris, but not enough to prevent the misfires from dragging the overall book down to a respectable-but-not-top-notch (+++) rating.

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