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 Collin Kelley's review of Alan Lightman's Reunion




published by Pantheon 2003

$22 hardback edition


Alan Lightman emerged onto the fiction scene in 1993 after spending most of his career as a physics teacher at MIT, while dabbling in short stories for magazines. With the publication of Einstein's Dreams, Lightman took his knowledge of matter and energy and crafted a startling 179-page debut about Albert Einstein's dreams of alternate and parallel universes. Two more short novels, Good Benito and The Diagnosis, have met with critical praise and stints on the bestseller lists.

This year, Lightman gives us the compelling and melancholy Reunion, clocking in at 231-pages. This is a one-sitting read, and the narrative flows so quickly and urgently you will find yourself turning the pages until the unexpected conclusion. As in his other novels, Lightman bends time and space to allow his protagonist, Charles, to encounter his younger self during a surreal 30-year college reunion. Charles is a divorced, 50-something professor who once aspired to be a great poet. As a good-looking, athletic 22-year-old, Charles was both dazzling in the classroom and on the wrestling mat. All that came to an abrupt halt when he met Julianna, a self-centered and driven ballet dancer. While his college campus simmers with a mixture of ambivalence and rage over the Vietnam death toll, Charles embarks on an affair with Julianna that shatters his equilibrium and his dreams. They meet for furtive sex in a dressing room of the New York ballet studio, while Julianna steadfastly refuses to divulge anything of her past. She only has one goal: to dance with Balanchine in the City Ballet and nothing else - not even her professed love for Charles - will get in the way. She leaves him waiting by the phone hoping for calls beckoning him to the city from his university. Charles loses interest in his classes, athletics, and his friends as he obsesses over Julianna and what she does with the unaccounted-for hours.

Charles is devastated when he finds out that Julianna is also sleeping with his mentor and  poetry professor at the college - and the hint that she may be sleeping with others as well. The introduction of Professor Galloway mirrors the life that Charles has taken on as a middle-aged man. Charles describes himself as "comfortable" is his role as an English professor, but it is obvious that he is disenchanted and haunted by his decisions as a young man that led him away from his calling as a writer. Charles remembers his highly charged confrontation with Galloway in two different ways, one where he hits the professor and demands that he stop seeing Julianna, and another where he sympathizes with the professor's pathetic life and shakes his hand. Charles' memory also seems to snag on the exact last moment he saw
Julianna and the words they exchanged. The final 50 pages reveal a secret and shattering end to Charles' affair with Julianna that forever changes his life.

Lightman's spare description of Julianna and her history makes her almost like a phantom, and this is a perfect metaphor for the fleeting time Charles spends with her. Lightman adds light touches about his former classmates who have gone on to various mundane careers but are all obviously trapped in a torpor of their own design. There is an amusing side-story about a classmate who wrote a book on the lecherous life of a little known astronomer and how one encounter with a woman who wouldn't give in to his advances wrecked his self-esteem and career. This tale is an alternate version of the story that will unfold in Reunion. Charles remarks on how his college campus has changed; and then he is amazed when he stumbles upon an old model of the college from his years there and it eerily comes to life, sparking his memories of Julianna. Another fine touch is the use of Emily Dickinson's poetry and its echoes of alienation and loss that resonate with the story of Charles and Julianna.

While Lightman has never been long-winded, his perfect snapshots of lives in progress, in crisis, and in ruin are a welcome diversion in this era of bloated crime dramas, romances, and treacly tales of love. Lightman is one of the best writers of literary fiction on the scene today.




Collin Kelley is an award-winning playwright, poet, and journalist. Visit his site at




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