Sicilian aristocrat and musician Ruggero and his younger American wife Constance decide to write their Confessions. In hers, Constance reveals her multiple marriages to older men, while Ruggero details the affairs he's had with men and women across his lifetime—including his passionate affair with the author Edmund White.
... a sometimes humorous and nearly always irreverent tale about love and aging that is experimental in execution if not quite in theme ... Given that this is an Edmund White novel—his work can often be unpredictable and striking––fiction and real life sometimes overlap, especially when one of Ruggero’s affairs is with White himself. The result is an erotically charged literary romp facing the loss of physical beauty and the inevitable passage of time.
One of the peculiarities of the book is that it is mainly set in 2050—although little is made of this, except for the odd jokey allusion to the past, such as White’s disingenuous references to himself as 'the forgotten gay novelist of the twentieth century'. Which begs the question of why anyone should care whether Ruggero had ruined the life of such a neglected figure ... Among the many puzzles of the book is why Constance, who purportedly wrote its final chapters, should choose to focus on the affair between her former husband and a man who died before they met. She has long been sidelined, just as the original premise of the related histories has been discarded. As if to pre-empt criticism of the overfamiliar material, Edmund White the character maintains that 'writers long in the tooth started repeating themselves'. It is hard to deny the sense of Edmund White the author being a prime offender.
He's handsome, wealthy, athletic, highly intelligent (as he reminds us frequently), multilingual, sexually irresistible, musically gifted. Ruggero, the bisexual Sicilian harpsichordist at the center of A Previous Life, the newest novel by Edmund White, is also, well, dull. Only slightly more interesting is his late-in-life wife, Constance ... The setup is intriguing. Will they be honest with each other in their memories, or withholding? Will we be made to care? White nimbly switches between the voices and writing rhythms of Ruggero and Constance, drawing us into their colorful stories, which lean heavily toward the carnal. White, who deserves his status as an icon of gay letters, always has written frankly about sex. In A Previous Life he tackles bisexuality with explicit gusto but comes away with what are scarcely more than stereotypes: that a bisexual woman is fluid about partners, sleeping with people she is drawn to emotionally regardless of their gender, and that a bisexual man is just masking his basic gayness ... Confoundingly, White allows Ruggero to remain unevolved. He is vain and narcissistic as a young man, in middle age and in his dotage, never seeming to realize how his superiority complex cuts him off from mere mortals, makes him a boorish bore with no sense of humor.