Charles, a once-promising poet, is a professor at a minor liberal arts college, admiring of passion but without passion himself. Now living a desperately comfortable existence, he decides to return to his thirtieth college reunion. While there, he relives an intense love affair he had with a beautiful ballerina that forever changed his life. At times shocked, admiring, and furious with his younger self, Charles remembers contradictory versions of events, until reality and identity dissolve into a haze of illusion. Reunion explores the pain of self-examination, the clay-like nature of memory, and the fatal power of first love.
About the Author
Alan Lightman was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948 and educated at Princeton and the California Institute of Technology, where he received a doctorate in theoretical physics. His previous books include the novels Einstein’s Dreams, Good Benito, and The Diagnosis, the collection of essays and fables Dance for Two, and several books on science. Einstein’s Dreams was an international bestseller, and The Diagnosis was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. His latest book, a collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious, will be published by Pantheon books in January 2005. Lightman’s other works include research papers in physics and astronomy. He has taught on the faculties of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is currently an adjunct professor of humanities at MIT.
Read an Excerpt
Sheila lies on top of me, snoring, her heavy breasts heavy on my chest, her stomach on my stomach, her hair damp in the afternoon heat, a shard of light through the white shutters she closes when we make love, the slow beat of the overhead fan, the tiny sound of a radio from the street. I too am falling asleep.
I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened. Someone's arm slides across my face. What? What? An hour has passed, maybe two. I sit up on the silk rug, sweaty. In slow motion, Sheila kisses the back of my neck, stands, and stretches.
"I like it here, with the books," she says and yawns. "I always have. Have you read them all? I'll bet most of them are for show." Grinning at me, she takes a long sip from the wineglass on the bookshelf. I watch the amber liquid swirl slowly around her lips, I stare at her body, creamy and white. She is not unattractive in her middle-aged nakedness, and I think that I may even love her, but I am ready for her to leave. There is a certain book I want to finish.
Still completely naked, she saunters into the kitchen and comes back to the study with the portable TV, turns it on. Click. We are watching a commercial about deodorant, then a news broadcast of some hurricane in Honduras. Hundreds of men and women huddle beside crude shelters, children play in the mud. Trucks unload food and medical supplies.
"I'm going to send them a donation," says Sheila.
"CARE. Oxfam. You should too."
What can I say to Sheila? I am still half asleep, limp from our lovemaking, unprepared even to look out the window. As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I am tempted to turn off the TV.
The truth is, I feel no connection to the faces on the screen. The Hondurans are just so many electronic pixels. I've decided that has been the great achievement of our age: to so thoroughly flood the planet with megabits that every image and fact has become a digitized disembodied nothingness. With magnificent determination, our species has advanced from Stone Age to Industrial Revolution to Digital Emptiness. We've become weightless, in the bad sense of the word.
The Honduran women in their earth-colored shawls, the vacant-eyed men wearing their lopsided straw hats, are nothing more than bits on the screen, surges of electrical current, evaporations. I wish Sheila had never turned on the TV. I'd like to drift back to sleep, or read.
Sheila has been somewhere upstairs, rambling around in one of the rooms, and casually descends the long spiral staircase. She's put on a blouse but cleverly left it unbuttoned. "I'm going to send a donation." She raises one eyebrow at me, almost imperceptibly, waiting for me to say something or do something. I recognize this minute gesture as once belonging to my ex-wife. It was a sign that I was not paying attention. Unexpectedly, I find myself missing that little prod.
"You can afford more than I can, Charles," she says.
"Right." She is definitely trying to pick a fight. Could she be bored?
"Oxfam has an 800 number where you can use your credit card," she says. "Or you can write a check. To the Honduran Hurricane Relief Fund. I'm going to write a check."
"Go ahead," I say.
Sheila looks surprisingly sexy with the unbuttoned blouse. Her body is real, her body is not a digitized bit, it has weight and it's twelve inches away. I reach for her breasts.
She takes a step back. "Don't act like a shit," she says.
I don't feel like a shit. I've thought about these things. Just the other day I was reading some article about the relativity of values. I mention this because it applies directly to the question of the Honduran hurricane victims on TV. Even if they are not mere electronic data points, those people are not nearly as bad off as they seem. Because well-being and need are purely relative concepts. There is no such thing as poverty in itself, suffering in itself, unhappiness in itself. All is relative. Galileo, the physicist, was the first person to understand this idea. Absolute motion is unobservable. Only the relative motion between two objects has any meaning.
The great painters also grasped the point: the eye responds only to relative lights and darks. Look at the pictures of Corot, for example Landscape with Lake and Boatman or Château Thierry. Look at the works of John Singer Sargent and Frederick Edwin Church. A dark region of canvas is dark only by virtue of being juxtaposed against a lighter region. Or consider colors. For years painters and photographers have known that the value of a color is perceived only in its relation to other colors around it. With the proper background, a green can appear brown, or a blue red.
According to whoever wrote the magazine article, and I cannot remember his or her name, it is only common sense to extend the argument to human contentment. Human beings consider themselves satisfied only compared to some other condition. A man who has owned nothing but a bicycle all of his life feels suddenly wealthy the moment he buys an automobile. For a few days he will drive his new car slowly through the neighborhood for people to gawk at, he will race his machine on the highway, he will lovingly polish the hubcaps until he can see his face in reflection. But this happy sensation soon wears off. After a while the car becomes just another thing that he owns. Moreover, when his neighbor next door buys two cars, in an instant our man feels wretchedly poor and deprived.
Now I think again of the Honduran hurricane victims, and at this point I admit that I am extrapolating the argument on my own, beyond what he or she wrote in the article. Who is to say that the Hondurans are needy or unhappy? Needy and unhappy relative to what? The fact is, they are probably not accustomed to having much. Aren't the Honduran children laughing as they play in the mud? To me, they look pleased as punch. Very likely they have what they need. Leave them alone. I can't decide what other people need, only what I need myself. But I'm losing the thread of my argument.
"Charles, I can see you thinking again," says Sheila as she applies dark red lipstick, using her little finger. "You're always thinking. It's not good for you."
I write a check for fifteen dollars to the Honduran Hurricane Relief Fund and turn off the TV. Done.
Now we're eating ice cream, peppermint. Peppermint is my favorite, but I also stock plenty of pistachio and chocolate almond. Between bites Sheila draws on a cigarette and exhales in long silver strands. She wants to talk about a movie she saw last week, some romantic French thing directed by Jean Doumer. Although I go to the movies frequently myself, I haven't seen Sheila's film and can only nod while she talks. She leaves to get a second bowl of ice cream from the kitchen, I hear the fridge open and close, a spoon clinks on the counter. The movie will be playing for another few weeks, she says. Would I like to go with her Friday night? She wouldn't mind seeing it again.
For some reason I now recover the thread of the argument I was making before. The real point is this: I have come to understand my own modest needs and aspirations. More importantly, I have descended to the level I deserve. In the morning, before getting dressed, I stand on my porch in my pajamas for a few minutes and smell the new day before it slips through my fingers. I eat my two poached eggs (which I cook myself) and my dry piece of toast. I drink my cup of coffee made in my dripomatic machine, two spoonfuls of milk, no sugar. On weekdays I bicycle to my leafy little college, where I teach my morning classes. I make a few phone calls, meet a few students. In midafternoon I cycle home, past the well-tended gardens, the mailboxes on cedar posts, the two-story houses with their garages. Then I am home, in my own two-story house.
Actually, not my house. A small-college professor, living as I do on a small-college professor's pittance, couldn't afford this house by a mile. My ex-wife bought the house, then left it to me upon her departure. One of my less pleasant colleagues once sniffed at me: "Not all of us are lucky enough to have wives who leave us such splendid houses when they divorce us." And I answered, "It doesn't bother me one bit, partner. Perhaps you'll have better luck yourself the next time around." Barbara knew exactly what she was doing. When we split up, she took only a little porcelain bottle that we'd gotten together in New York. Left me the house, the car, all of the furniture, even her clothes. She should have taken her goddamned stuff. She should have taken the house. She got her revenge.
So I cycle through the neighborhood of successful lawyers and doctors and bankers, arrive home, and grade juvenile papers. In the late afternoon, I fix myself a drink, take out a book, sit in my chair. After dinner I work on one of my five-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles of the countryside of France. Some evenings I don't feel like working on a puzzle.
Wouldn't my life be ridiculously extravagant to a Honduran, flood victim or not? Of course. The main thing is: I don't want to be disturbed. I have made sacrifices for this effete life of mine, at least relatively speaking, and I am comfortable. Do I lead the life of a selfish shit? So be it. I am content in my shithood.
"Are you going to your college reunion thing?" asks Sheila. She is putting away her monogrammed cigarette case. "When is it? Isn't it in two weekends, on the sixth?"
"Yes. Will you go with me?" I realize now that for at least the last month I have been hoping Sheila will go with me. I went to my twentieth reunion alone, just after my divorce, and it was murderous. Everyone was paired up with wives and girlfriends. Guys from all over the country who haven't seen each other for twenty years, haven't stayed in touch, don't have any particular fondness for one another, crammed together for a weekend and acting like family. Then I skipped the twenty-fifth, the big one, the one where everyone talks about their place in the world. Out of the blue, I have decided to go to the thirtieth, all of us now in our fifties, balding, becoming farsighted, jowls beginning to sag, the precise knifeblade in time when we have accomplished much of what we are going to accomplish in life and are just beginning to stare at the black pit waiting for us at the other end. Why have I decided to go? I don't know. I don't know. But I am comfortable, I will say to my classmates, extremely comfortable. I don't want to be disturbed.
"I can't go with you," Sheila says. "Why don't you ask Emily?"
"Emily doesn't like to go on trips with me. She says that she feels like a child when we go on trips together. I probably won't see Emily until she comes home next Thanksgiving. Maybe not even then. Maybe she'll spend Thanksgiving with Barbara."
"I wish I could go with you. But I've got a client meeting that weekend."
"Please go with me."
She hesitates. "Maybe I can reschedule the appointment." She looks at me sympathetically from across the room. But she has hesitated a few seconds too long, and I can tell that she doesn't want to go.
"No," I say, "don't reschedule your appointment. It's all right." Why can't people be honest with each other? I am not being honest either.
Reading Group Guide
“Elegant . . . spare, economical and charged with meaning.” —The New York Times Book Review
We hope the following questions and discussion topics enhance your group’s reading of Alan Lightman’s latest novel, Reunion, a profound meditation on human desires, the power of memory, and how our past shapes the people we become.
1. Why is Charles crying at the end of the novel [p. 231]? Is it for lost youth, lost love, his lost child, loss of power, loss of the ability to feel, or something else altogether? Did he learn something during his reunion that makes him cry?
2. Charles muses: “Although I was prepared to suffer, it never occurred to me that she might be using me the way that Lena used Ulrich. . . . It never occurred to me that she might travel from one man to the next to avoid being abandoned. Or to avoid being worshiped like a goddess, a worship she both relished and despised” [pp. 128-9]. Is this a fair characterization of Juliana? Are all the signs of Juliana’s self-absorption [see p. 122 and p. 139] apparent only now to the older Charles, or did the younger Charles notice but choose to ignore them? Is to love, necessarily, to suffer, or did Charles just happen to fall for the wrong person? What might be Juliana’s version of their relationship?
3. How is the life of a dancer evoked? Charles comments, “Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing” [p. 87], but does he ever really understand the commitment Juliana makes? Would Juliana describe her life differently than Charles?
4. Charles reflects that “through [Juliana] he is learning who he is. He is her ‘sensitive college boy,’ she tells him. She says that he is arrogant at times but willing to admit his mistakes” [p. 146]. But the older Charles tells his younger self that his mistake was “[y]ou knew nothing about yourself” [p. 96]. Does Charles, in fact, ever learn who he is and why he is that way?
5. Does Charles’s reunion experience confirm Kierkegaard’s assertion that “Life can be understood only looking backward, but it can be lived only going forward” [p. 40]? Under this theory, is it possible to learn from one’s mistakes and to change the course of one’s life? Is understanding empowering to Charles or merely depressing?
6. How might one describe Charles’s personality? Is his description of himself as “selfish” accurate [p. 10]? Is Charles a sympathetic or likeable character? Does Charles’s personality alter from when he was a young student to when he becomes a middle-aged professor? Does Charles take responsibility for his actions?
7. Is the theory about “relativity of values” that is so attractive to Charles essentially a selfish one [pp. 6-8]? Does Charles behave consistently with this theory? Do the actions of the other characters in Reunion support the conclusion of Charles’s favorite book, The Morning of Artifice, that “at bottom people are selfish” [p. 96]? Is love necessarily selfish? How might the older Charles answer the questions posed by his younger self: “Is it possible for a person to love without wanting love back? . . . Or is love, by its nature, a reciprocity, like oceans and clouds, an evaporating of seawater and a replenishing by rain?” [p. 192]
8. What does the reader know about Charles’s relationship with his wife, and why does Charles (or the author) choose to reveal so little about his marriage? Why did Barbara leave him everything in the divorce [pp. 129-130]? Charles observes that his relationship with his daughter might have suffered because of his affair with Juliana [p. 225], but he does not comment on how his marriage might have been affected. Why not? How might his marriage have been affected by his affair? Why does Charles disdain the ambition his wife embraced [pp. 129-130]?
9. The older Charles recollects of his younger self: “Charles senses that he shares something with Galloway, some kind of dissatisfaction with life” [p. 57]. What other qualities do the young Charles and Galloway have in common? How does Charles’s relationship with Juliana compare to Galloway’s relationship with her? How does Charles really feel about Galloway? Does Charles grow up to become just like him?
10. Charles theorizes: “The astronomer . . . was a tragic figure of sorts. He allowed his personal pride to end his promising professional career. And there lies the tragedy” [p. 16]. Is Cunningham also a tragic figure? Is Charles? Is Juliana? Is Michael Bisi? With whom does Charles identify? Who does he admire and despise and why? Is “an opportunity lost” a “true tragedy” as the older Charles asserts [p. 39]? If so, is Reunion a tragedy?
11. In his narrative, Charles alludes to two types of power. First, Lena, who caused the astronomer’s downfall, discovered “the most powerful force in the universe, and that force is all the stronger for not being diluted with compassion” [p. 17]. What is this powerful force? Second, Charles attributes “the power of not knowing the future” [p. 161] to his younger self. How is this lack of knowledge empowering? Which type of power turns out to be the stronger one in Reunion?
12. Why is Charles angry with Cunningham for not understanding the astronomer as he does [p. 47]?
13. The older Charles remembers, “Still, there’s something about Nick that Charles admires” [p. 105]. Then, later, Charles recalls that on the rabbit hunting trip “He realizes how much he hates Nick” [p. 115]. Upon what is Charles’s love-hate relationship with Nick Blanchard based? Can Nick Blanchard be understood as a product of everything that was simultaneously good and bad about America in the 1960s? How does Charles distinguish himself not only from Nick but also from that period in America’s history [see p. 76]?
14. What are the different narrative voices that Lightman utilizes in Reunion? How do they differ in tone and in perspective? How does Lightman effectively convey the different points of view and attitudes of an older man and a younger man? How does Lightman transition from voice to voice, and are these transitions smooth or jarring to the reader? How do the different voices affect the reader’s relationship with the characters? [See pp. 26, 50-51, 74, 94 and 130 for examples of shifts in narrative voice.]
15. Charles recollects contradictory accounts of both his confrontation with Galloway [pp. 173-81] and his final meeting with Juliana [pp. 208-217]. How do Charles’s conflicting memories illustrate what he wants to remember about these events in his life and what he wants to forget? Why might he hide certain truths from himself even long after they are past?
16. What decision do you think Juliana ultimately makes regarding her life? Does an understanding of the themes explored in Reunion hinge upon her decision?
17. What does Charles mean when he writes, “We are all being seduced” [p. 23]?
18. What does Charles admire about Emily Dickinson [p. 54]? If you are familiar with the life or works of Emily Dickinson, do you see any similarities between Dickinson and Charles?
19. What is the attitude of the author, himself a university professor, toward college professors and college life in general? Are the portraits of Charles and Galloway flattering? What is the significance of Galloway’s argument in front of the class with the student assistant about the order of names on academic publications [p. 62-66]?
A conversation with Alan Lightman
Q: In your new novel, Reunion, your central character Charles journeys from the present to the past to revisit himself as a young college student. Can you tell us something about Charles and how his journey begins?
A: At the opening of the novel, Charles is in his early fifties, a literature professor at a small, second-rate college somewhere in the Northeast. As a young man, he had been a promising poet, but he has not lived up to that promise. He now lives in a big, rambling house, left to him by his successful wife, whom he divorced ten years ago. Since then, Charles has had a string of empty relationships. For reasons that he doesn't understand, he has decided to attend his thirtieth year college reunion. And there, at the reunion, he becomes a witness to his senior year in college, a year in which he was involved in a passionate but ultimately devastating love affair with a ballet dancer named Juliana. I won't reveal how this witnessing the past comes about, but once it begins, Charles is drawn to the spectacle like a moth to a flame, wishing that he could tear himself away but finding that he is unable to do so.
Q: An idealist and romantic in his 20s, Charles has developed into a dispassionate skeptic. What do you think he expected of himself?
A: I believe that Charles, as a twenty-two-year old young man, expected what many of us expect in our youth. He saw the future stretching in front of him to infinity, shimmering with unlimited opportunities and hopes. He saw himself as immortal. More than that, he was a talented poet, all of his teachers told him so, he seethed with his talent, and he hadaspirations of being a great writer. And he hoped to be a man loved by women.
Q: Your title, Reunion, represents several different kinds of reunions: the thirtieth-year college reunion that Charles attends, a reunion between Charles and Juliana, and a reunion between Charles and his younger self at age twenty two. Can you discuss this idea?
A: Of course, I like the triple meaning of reunion here, but for me the most important reunion is between the fifty-two-year-old Charles and his twenty-two-year-old self. Aging is one of the most powerful, beautiful, and horrifying experiences of life. In what ways are we the same person, and yet a different person, as ourselves ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago? I have often wondered what it would be like to meet myself of twenty or thirty years ago. What would I say to myself? What would I want to know about my younger self that I have now forgotten, or misremembered, or distorted in the vast hallways of time? What joys, what regrets would I want to express to my younger self?
Q: Tell us a little about Juliana.
A: Juliana is a private person who tells us little about her past. Evidently, she had an abusive father who abandoned the family and an alcoholic mother. At age 12 she ran away from home to live in New York City with her aunt, a former ballet dancer. Juliana becomes a dancer herself. Dancing is her life. Her ambition is to dance with Balanchine, to be as good as Suzanne Farrell. Like many dancers, she is obsessively compulsive about her body and her weight. She lives in a world of certainty, ballet, ballet, ballet. Yet, she still needs intimate relationships with men, as if the rigid formality of ballet doesn't allow enough freedom to her body. She makes love to Charles in the tiny ballerinas' dressing room, late at night.
Q: There is a lot about ballet in the novel. How did you research this?
A: I have always been fascinated by ballet, as an art form centered on the body. A friend of mine, a former dancer himself and now teacher of dance, shepherded me around New York to visit a number of the ballet studios still in existence from the1960s, when most of the novel takes place. I attended some classes and rehearsals. My friend also got me into a remarkable class of the Royal Ballet, from London, when they were performing in Boston. Beyond these wonderful experiences, I read some of the autobiographies of famous ballerinas and watched some documentaries about ballet.
Q: Much of Reunion takes place during the social and political chaos of the late 1960s. How did these events impact your characters?
A: The young Charles is undergoing a soul-searching period of his life brought on by the usual confusions of a twenty-two-year old and the overpowering love affair with Juliana. The chaos of the Vietnam War and all of the questions of the 1960s only add to his confusion. At times, he thinks about his future as a great poet. At other times, he thinks that he will be drafted and killed in Vietnam, like some of his classmates, and that the future extends only for the next day, that the only important moment is the present. As for so many young men of this era, Charles has ambivalent feelings about the War and many of the social issues of the day. On the one hand, he believes that the War is wrong, that various social inequalities are wrong. On the other hand, he is not sure that he should jeopardize his future by being an activist, burning his draft card, setting fire to buildings, joining the Black Panthers, and so on. Juliana, on the other hand, seems to float above the social and political issues of the day. She lives in a world of certainy. Ballet is her rock, her beauty, her purity, and her torment.
Q: Haunted by the turns his life has taken, stunned as he witnesses a replay of his senior year in college, the older Charles remembers various conflicting versions of his love affair with Juliana and is shocked to realize that his own recollections may be more self-serving than accurate after all these years. Is this revelation a commentary on how we view ourselves versus how the world views us?
A: Memory is a clay-like substance. I believe that we distort, bend, and reshape personal memory to fit our self image, to manufacture our self identity. The most mysterious aspect of existence, in my opinion, is consciousness, self awareness. And that consciousness and "I-ness" is, in turn, determined in part by memory, memory of events in the past, relationships in the past, actions and decisions in the past, who we were in the past. Because memory is malleable, all of those past decisions, actions, and impulses of the heart are also malleable, they twist and shimmer in a half light, subject to interpretation and reconstruction, so that it is impossible to say what really happened. Reality itself disappears in a haze of uncertainty and human frailty.
Q: Your previous fiction clearly melds your scientific background into your fiction. Reunion is a much more romantic book, and the relationship between Charles and Juliana is one of great passion. Would you describe yourself as a romantic?
A: Yes, I would describe myself as a romantic. From a young age, I have struggled with a kind of split personality: on one side intuitive, artistic, romantic; on the other side rational, scientific, dispassionate. In high school, I wrote poetry and I also built rockets. I constantly feel these two sides warring with each other, in my professional work, in my friendships, in love relationships. Even in my fiction, I find this tension. I think that Reunion comes far closer to my romantic and passionate side than any of my previous books.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In a more literary vein than my usual chick-lit, I attempted "Reunion" by Alan Lightman, and gave up after 111 pages. Charles muses and reminisces on the brink of his 30-year Princeton-like college reunion, and I couldn't stay awake. The author has won many awards, so it's probably not him, it's me.
Boring and slight. Guy goes to college reunion and re-imagines his affair with a ballerina.
for a moment I thought I was in a dream myself. when an author can do that, watch out!