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.
... the Chinese boxes of White’s metafiction become ever more fantastically interlocked ... we can’t help but remember that it is White penning these pitiless descriptions of impotence and age, and it is perhaps in these truly hard to read passages that we glimpse the driving impulse behind the book. No matter how elaborately cultured or crudely pornographic the prose gets, it still crackles with a heartfelt insistence that the old and hungry have as much to tell us about the dynamics of sex as the young and sated ... Back in the now-distant 1970s and 80s, White’s dazzling first quartet of novels forever enlarged what gay writing might do with its then newly found freedoms. With this latest report from the frontiers of desire, he has triumphantly dared to continue that project. A Previous Life is elegant, filthy – and quite possibly the queerest thing you will read all year.
... 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.