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A Summer In Italy Breeds Lust, Confusion

The wry narrator of Martin Amis' clever 12th novel is full of observations and edicts about sex and aging and the social revolution that rocked his protagonist's world in the 1970s. He faintly echoes and mischievously inverts Jane Austen's "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," with the assertion: "It is the near-universal wish of dying men that they had had much more sex with many more women."

The Pregnant Widow, a felicitous comeback after Amis' last two novels, Yellow Dog and House of Meetings, is at once a romp, an exercise in extended nostalgia, a tease and an energetic meditation on the seismic social shift that caused "surface ... to supersede essence" and youth to trump class, race and sex as a source of power.

The novel focuses on a "hot, endless, erotically decisive summer" spent by a group of libidinous 20-year-olds in a castle on an Italian mountainside. Keith Nearing, in the "climax of his youth," is faced with a "binary moment," a choice "between two futures" that changes his life. More than three decades later, Keith, "now well launched on the bullet train of his fifties, where the minutes often dragged but the years tumbled over one another and disappeared," finally sorts out what happened that summer.

The setup in Italy is part Decameron (as was Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills) and part The Big Chill -- an extended, somewhat debauched house party with endless talk, sex and talk of sex. Keith is on summer holiday from college with his hyper-rational on-and-off girlfriend, who has lost her "sexual otherness," feels like a sibling and sees right through him. He becomes obsessed with her statuesque friend, Scheherazade, who's recently blossomed into a busty bombshell, and the extravagantly unreadable, wide-bottomed Gloria Beautyman. Amis wrings an astounding degree of narrative suspense out of the question of whether or not Keith will score with these women.

Amis' father Kingsley famously accused him of showing off in his virtuosic early novels (several of which, including Dead Babies and London Fields, also feature Keiths who do not fare well). Sure enough, he studs The Pregnant Widow with references to Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and Philip Larkin, among others. The title comes from Alexander Herzen's quote about revolutionary change leaving behind "not an heir, but a pregnant widow." But because they are integral to the text, these literary allusions are exhilarating rather than pretentious: Keith is an English lit student plowing through the canon, including Austen, George Eliot, Richardson and Dickens, in search of enlightenment on relations between the sexes. He's also, "ominously, a K in a castle," ripe for metamorphosis.

The best parts of The Pregnant Widow, however, are neither his horndog's laments nor his literary exegeses, but Amis' hilarious riffs on the "silver tsunami."

"As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out," Amis writes. "And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick ... . Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past."


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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.