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A Previous Life

Review

A Previous Life

Edmund White’s latest novel, A PREVIOUS LIFE, starts off as a sort of game. A couple decides to write their memoirs and read them aloud to one another, holding nothing back. It appears they are a bit of a mismatch: Ruggero is 70 years old, a Sicilian harpsichord player, a man who is deeply convinced of his own superiority. Constance (whose name may be a bit of a play on words) is much younger, deeply devoted to Ruggero and admiring of him. But on some level, she regrets ending up with a man who is too old to desire the children she wants to have.

"...a deeply fascinating exploration of the ways in which lovers new and old share their histories with one another...and a consideration of how we choose to make sense of our own lives through the stories we tell."

As they’ve promised, they take turns reading their memoirs to one another. These stories, which start when each are teenagers, are by turns bawdy and harrowing. Constance lost her parents in a car accident and was molested by her guardian. As a teen, Ruggero experimented sexually with his male cousin, only to realize that his cousin would eventually embrace heterosexuality. As for Constance and Ruggero, both are bisexual and freely recount their sexual relationship with male and female lovers alike, often in explicit detail.

As the novel progresses, the memoirs become more and more entangled with the couple’s reactions and responses to what they’re learning about one another. They are often surprised that the other chooses to recollect previous lovers in ways that their current partner might find hurtful or too personal. At about the book’s halfway point, the narrative begins to take an even more intriguing turn, as Ruggero starts to recount what might be called the love affair of his lifetime --- his years-long involvement with author Edmund White.

By inserting himself into his own novel, White makes himself into a bit of a caricature. In 2050, an elderly Ruggero recalls 2018 and 2019 and the sexual predilections and egotistical meanderings of a now-deceased Edmund White. Here, White is somewhat of a figure of pity: fat, impotent and unpleasantly odiferous, yet holding Ruggero in thrall, at least for a time. Without giving away too much, Constance and Ruggero’s game also falls apart while Ruggero recounts his affair with White, leaving Constance to piece together much of their history on her own.

A PREVIOUS LIFE is in many ways an odd and at times disquieting novel, filled with Ruggero’s largely unexamined misogyny and ageism, as well as at least one pretty egregious instance of transphobia. But it’s also a deeply fascinating exploration of the ways in which lovers new and old share their histories with one another, whether ecstatically or reluctantly, and a consideration of how we choose to make sense of our own lives through the stories we tell. This format draws attention to the many opportunities humans have to reinvent ourselves over the course of a long life, whether in relation to one another or in our understanding of ourselves.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 4, 2022

A Previous Life
by Edmund White

  • Publication Date: January 25, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1635577276
  • ISBN-13: 9781635577273