When I was a teenager, in thrall to my hormones, I couldn’t imagine a more enthralling love story than Romeo and Juliet. Then I went to college where I succumbed to English professors’ groupthink that Pride and Prejudice takes that prize. And I am still occasionally excited by the notion of re-reading all that sturm and drang about Helen of Troy.
But now that, at age 90, I have been a grown up for a few years, I submit to you, seriously, that Shirley Hazard’s novel, The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, transcends any category. It is what it is, a love story like no other as a great poem is like no other: to change it but a little, changes it altogether.
The “they” in the quoted sentence above are two lovers, Ted Tice, an astronomer, and Caroline Vail, a widow; the blank space is an airport. The sentence comes in the second to the last page in the novel and is earned by everything precedent. It names what the alert and therefore enthralled, reader has sensed from the beginning: that this story is both their story and ours, that in its fluid projection from future to past and back again, its marriage of fate and character, its straightforward prediction of the outcome, and the Olympian distance from which it told, it rises to the level of myth. In my copy, worn out by five readings – three of mine and two my wife’s – the lovers’ fates are predicted on page 12. The novel is divided into four Parts, in each of which the whole arc of the story exists, and the ending is so indirectly narrated that act of divining it is an arrow in the reader’s heart.
I’ll say no more, except that I hope you will read this novel. Don’t read it late at night or after too much wine. It requires your brightest attention. When you read the last page, stop, stay with your emotions for a few minutes, then turn the first page and start again. You will marvel at how even richer your second experience is.
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