x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Mary Gordon’s new novellas are original and piercing, if not entirely successful

Gordon’s latest book is intermittently wonderful, although any book by this American master is worth reading.

Thomas Mann in New York, 1943. The author, who fled Germany during the Nazi years, is a crucial figure in Mary Gordon’s new collection of four novellas. Fred Stein Archive / Archive Photos / Getty Images
Thomas Mann in New York, 1943. The author, who fled Germany during the Nazi years, is a crucial figure in Mary Gordon’s new collection of four novellas. Fred Stein Archive / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Ever since her stunning debut novel Final Payments in 1978, Mary Gordon has been one of the premier fiction writers in the US, although too often pigeonholed as an “Irish Catholic” author. Her 16 books, including novels, short-story collections, essays, memoirs and a biography of Joan of Arc, have won multiple awards.

Her newest work, The Liar’s Wife [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], is a set of four novellas that have more in common than is apparent at first read (and only one of which features an Irish-American, Catholic heroine). Yet for all their strengths, including beautiful and original language and piercing insights into a range of characters, two of the selections are disappointing.

The title novella relates how a wealthy New England lawyer’s wife and retired laboratory technician, Jocelyn Bernstein, is abruptly confronted with the arrival of the charming but unreliable Irish husband she left decades ago – presumably the “liar” of the title.

In Simone Weil in New York, a young French expatriate mother in New York City during the Second World War is also thrust into an unwelcome reunion, when she accidentally encounters Weil, the famous French mystic and political activist, who had been the younger woman’s maths teacher nine years previously in France.

By contrast, 17-year-old Bill Morton, the protagonist of Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana, is thrilled to meet the German Nobel laureate when Mann gives a speech at Bill’s high school just as the war has begun.

The final, longest and most quintessentially Gordon of the four pieces is Fine Arts, the story of a socially awkward art student who was raised in a dreary home with a disabled father, educated in cloistered Catholic schools, and who now has a chance to visit Italy to research the little-known sculptor Matteo Civitali.

Despite their varied settings, characters and plots, all four novellas share the theme of being an outsider in “typical” American culture. More important, each story describes, from a different perspective, the protagonist’s realisation that he or she has missed out on what really matters in life.

As Jocelyn says: “When she thought of life as a pile of coins or a necklace of pearls, she never had the image of abundance. Everything in her life had been carefully chosen, carefully tended.”

Thomas Mann is the strongest of the pieces. Gordon succeeds at two of the novelist’s most difficult tasks: convincingly inhabiting the consciousness of a character of the opposite gender and conveying the voice of the modern Bill, a 90-year-old retired physician, even as he recalls the voice of his younger self.

In remembering the two émigré teachers who brought Mann to his school, Bill thinks: “Somehow, their looks, their way of dressing, their way of walking and holding their heads, were a sign to me of something, a larger, finer life I hoped one day to be a part of … It’s quite incredible, how naive I was. How innocent – although no one believes in innocence nowadays, they think it’s a joke, a trap, a way of covering up, covering over.”

The teachers select Bill to introduce Mann’s speech because they see him as a “real American” boy yet with the potential to be better than ordinary. Bill fears that the accolade is a lie. Both descriptions ultimately prove true, however, as the teachers and Mann open Bill’s eyes to the prejudices of his town and the horrors of the Nazis.

Simone Weil is a strange tale that showcases Gordon’s fearless talent for probing awkward issues like faith. Genevieve, the young mother, long ago abandoned her blind devotion to Weil. Indeed, she is appalled now by Weil’s rudeness, selfishness and grotesque anti-Semitism. Still, she regrets the loss of her belief in pure truth that Weil had so briefly inspired.

Both these stories have some factual basis: Weil lived in New York for a few months in 1942, and Mann stayed for a time in Chicago after fleeing Nazi Germany.

The title novella does a masterful job of slowly building a feeling of dread, then shifting in a surprise plot twist. However, it is weakened by its basic premise, which relies on the cliché of the stiff-lipped upper-class Anglican versus the Irish rogue who lives life to the full.

For its part, Fine Arts runs too long and the ending does not fit the personality of its heroine, Theresa Riordan. Unlike the other protagonists, she is granted the opportunity to redeem her life’s paltriness, but only through a clumsy and uncharacteristic flourish of deus ex machina.

Still, even a disappointing Mary Gordon book is worth reading, for her wonderful language, her insights and her willingness to take on difficult issues.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-­winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the inter­section of business, finance and social policy.