Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. Elliot Perlman

Alan Lightman’s novel, Reunion, is a meditation on memory and its limitations. We are introduced to a 52-year old Charles who teaches literature at a small liberal arts college. He lives alone in a comfortable house that his ex-wife left him after their divorce.

Out of the blue, he decides to attend his 30th college reunion, where, in the midst of meeting his former classmates, he begins to recall his first passionate love affair with an aspiring ballerina, Juliana. These recollections form the bulk of the novel.

Charles muses often about youth. “Could I ever have been that young? Not a wrinkle in my forehead. Not a crease around the eyes. A thick scalp of hair, broad shoulders, erect posture. Flat lean stomach. It makes me want to cry.”

But how much of what he recalls was true or happened in the way he remembered it? Charles begins to confront the vagaries of memory. Did he really skip classes to take the bus to New York to visit Juliana? Did he actually sleep with her one night? Did she simultaneously carry on an affair with a college professor? Or has he made all of it up with the passage of time?

“How pitiful his life suddenly seems compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.”

Reunion reminds the reader that the way we reconstruct the past may not be all that reliable, especially for those experiences that retain an emotional impact. At times they seem veridical, at other times, contradictory and then again, more dream-like than anything else

Do you recall your first love? And how much of what you recall in fact happened? I do very vividly recall my college love. It was to be my last, as she is now my wife and has been for almost 60 years.

Occasionally we talk about those days and how she remembers them is not always the way I do. She may also recall an experience I have completely forgotten about and she has also forgotten much of what I recall. And both of us recall experiences that neither of us believe occurred in just that way.

In The Missing Shade of Blue, Jennie Erdal wrote: “Memory is a slippery customer…And in no time at all and with no evil intent, the truth turns into a kind of fiction.”

Yes, the mystery of memory, the elusiveness of memory, the necessity of memory. Without it, what would we be?