[posted 02.27.2003]


WAITING FOR A TURN SIGNAL in your 24th year, you hear the song begin and crank it up with nostalgic excitement. You know this cheesy ballad — your all-time favorite from the days of metal hair and cocksure emoting — will offer a three-minute jaunt to a sunnier point of view.

But as the men of Extreme cajole you to forego sentiment for action, you find yourself experiencing the song for the first time. An ode that once struck you as the height of romance now shows itself to be anything but. Your older, wiser ears hear the message perfectly: Don’t tell me you love me, baby. Get naked and show me.

Just like that, an old favorite from your youth bites the dust.

Another time it’s a film you revisit, watching patiently until that moment, that scene that colorized the world for you long ago…but on this viewing it glides by without effect. The magic is gone. In fact, it looks now like it was never anywhere but in your head.

And it’s happening more and more. These elements of the world seem to be repositioning themselves, shifting when you look away. But don’t blame the song, the movie, the book. You’re the one who changed. And if you’re lucky, you won’t stop.

The best works will always have power, of course — but your emotional coordinates will mean the difference between acknowledging that something is there and actually feeling it. You could be the reader who swallows On the Road once, as a lesson in Kerouac and the Beats; or the convert who carries it along year after year, celebrating the story like an anniversary.

At least once in your life, you find a story just when it best dovetails with or illuminates your own. (The resulting high is the reason you keep reading.)

Maybe it’s Crime and Punishment. You pick it up in bleak January, while you’re waiting for work, watching your money run out, seldom venturing out of your studio apartment, and step seamlessly into the boots of Raskolnikov as he skulks the streets, weaving away from friendly faces and conversation of any kind. You look at the life you share, marveling at how much has crumbled. He says, “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!” and your heart pumps fast in agreement.

Sometimes you get a second chance. You stumble upon a work remembered for one story line or attraction — or for having little appeal at all — and find that this time it speaks directly to your experience. (When this happens, be humble enough to recognize your luck. How often, after all, do you subject yourself to books or travel resorts or suitors that failed to yield sparks the first time ‘round?)

It could happen like this:

You go to the video store, carrying no real inclination toward anything, and three tapes corralled in one rubber band catch your eye. Costumes, English accents, six hours of story for the price of one rental: The math appeals, so you hand over your card and cash and leave with the BBC’s Middlemarch. You read George Eliot’s novel years ago in school, even wrote a paper about it, but have had no desire to open it in the four years since. Yet once you have finished the last tape, the adaptation accomplishes what most do: It drives you back to the text — for more story, more dialogue, simply more about Dorothea Brooke and Dr. Lydgate, the two idealists Eliot introduces just as they’re on the brink of learning what they will and won’t achieve. So you turn the pages and find passages such as this:

For a long while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective. What could she do, what ought she to do?

Hope and hazy ambitions. Yes, these are the surges of youth. Your eyes move on, finally stopping at this:

He was but seven-and-twenty, an age at which many men are not quite common — at which they are hopeful of achievement, resolute in avoidance, thinking that Mammon shall never put a bit in their mouths and get astride their backs, but rather that Mammon, if they have anything to do with him, shall draw their chariot.

Here’s where your breath catches, because that’s not a feeling you have (whether you would admit it aloud or not); that’s a feeling you remember.

Today, you must admit you feel closer to this:

It seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain.

You’re sadly ahead of the curve, because you’re only 26, and already nothing has turned out as you planned, already you know how the petty stuff of life chips away at once-sharp ambitions. You are living the truth Joan Didion felt at 28:

That not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.

You know that Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” But what you find as you read is a story of growing up. And, though Dorothea and Lydgate inhabit an English village in the years before the Industrial Revolution, their aims and failures are not so different than those you see and feel today. In Lydgate’s vow not to fall in love for several years, not to marry until he has established his career, you find echoes of the young American’s confession in the film Before Sunrise:

Sometimes I dream about being a good father and a good husband, and sometimes that feels really close. But then other times it seems silly, like it would ruin my whole life. And it’s not just a fear of commitment or that I’m incapable of caring or loving, because I can. It’s just that, if I’m totally honest with myself, I think I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I excelled in some way, you know, than that I’d just been in a nice, caring relationship.

And when Lydgate falls in love despite himself, marrying a vain, simple girl who cannot understand his dreams, who wants not a husband who will revolutionize science but a stylish and doting provider, you cringe for him. He has misstepped in a way you recognize, illustrating the kind of cautionary tale that leaves modern-day lovers saddled with uncertainties.

You remember the young man in Michael Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World who quizzes his mother about her marriage:

You knew that, of all the people in the world, he was the one you wanted to marry? ... You never worried that you might be making some sort of extended mistake, like losing track of your real life and going off on, I don’t know, a tangent you could never return from?

And you know the fear, the desperate need to avoid the wrong choices, at the root of those questions. You live in the world of love among the twentysomethings, of boys and girls in button-down shirts and platform heels, posing over drinks and making stabs at getting to know each other. You are all people with places to go, careers to make happen, worried you won’t know love when you find it and terrified by what might happen if you do. Because you can’t be sure how allegiance to someone other than yourself might alter your landscape. Will it clarify your purpose or demolish it altogether?

You understand, of course, that Lydgate was undone by more than choosing the wrong wife (and that a bad marriage is hardly a life sentence in this modern day of divorce), that he fell victim to community politics, business partnerships with men who proved unsavory, his own pride and more. There are countless ways to go wrong; you’ve always known this. But not so long ago these were all hazy warnings, sure to happen around, but not to you. It’s that kind of naive optimism that left you blind, four years ago, to the depths of this novel, that offered a decidedly distant cluck of sympathy to the final disclosure that Lydgate had a career as a respected doctor, yet “always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.”

Now, your heady certainty gone, reflecting too long on his fate is enough to break your heart a little. And you know it’s not really because you feel sorry for him.

Finally you have to remind yourself that your life isn’t finished, your accomplishments decided, your path as bleak as it might appear. That you may just be one of those dramatic youngsters for whom, Eliot says, “each crisis seems final, simply because it is new.”

In other words, this is only one book, one piece of the world that fits. You will find many more before you’re done.

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at and in the book neptune noir.