cover image Old Scores

Old Scores

Nicholas Delbanco. Warner Books, $23.5 (271pp) ISBN 978-0-446-52046-1

The epic 12th-century romance between Heloise and Abelard serves as a model for Delbanco's (In the Name of Mercy) restrained but affecting new novel. In 1969, Paul Ballard is an intense, attractive young philosophy professor at Bennington-like Catamount College in Vermont. He falls deeply in love with adoring, idealistic student Elizabeth Sieverdsen, but their affair ends tragically. Rebuffing Paul's marriage proposal, Elizabeth leaves school without telling him that she is pregnant. Her family pressures her to give up the baby for adoption. Following an accident, Paul stops teaching and becomes a recluse, dwelling upon his lost love and wasted life. Although Elizabeth marries, has children and settles in a quaint Tuscan village, her existence proves to be anything but idyllic, burdened as she is by her unresolved love for Paul and guilt about abandoning her child. After her marriage breaks up, she follows her grown children to the U.S. and is inevitably drawn back to Vermont. By the time Paul and Elizabeth reunite, 25 years have passed. In a moving scene, they meet their now grown daughter, Sally, who had written to Elizabeth in Italy, but whose anger and resentment are palpable. Tentatively, Elizabeth and Paul try to salvage what remains of their love. The echoes of Abelard and Heloise are intriguing, but also distracting; grafting a classical story of romantic love onto a spare, contemporary setting, Delbanco sometimes creates dissonance. But it's a measure of his control that this intelligent tale builds to a resonant and passionate depiction of love's poignant complexity. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Delbanco and the late John Gardner were co-founders of the Bennington Writing Workshops at Bennington College.