Mary Gordon

“Ever since her stunning debut novel Final Payments in 1978,” Fran Hawthorne writes in The National Journal, “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.”

Gordon is receiving warm praise for her new book, a collection of four novella, The Liar’s Wife, which, reports Michael D. Langan, “glints with Gordon’s enduring mettle: She draws from the dross of everyday life, a hidden gold.”

Here’s how critic (not gazillionaire) Malcolm Forbes summarizes the novellas in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “All four novellas that make up The Liar’s Wife deal either with Americans in foreign lands or Europeans on American turf. The European subjects of two of her novellas are factual people held in awe by fictitious secondary characters. “Simone Weil in New York” charts the French intellectual’s fish-out-of-water immigrant experience in the Big Apple in 1942 through the eyes of Genevieve, one of her former philosophy students. “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” (as incongruous a pairing as Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) sees 90-year-old Billy looking back on his encounter with the German author in 1939. Gordon masterfully sketches her famous leads — Weil is brilliant but gauche; Mann is primly eloquent — but the real and more full-bodied stars of the show are their admirers, Gordon’s invented creations, whose lives since meeting their heroes have taken many a dramatic turn.

“The other two novellas are shorn of celebrity and end up being all the better for it. In the eponymous tale, Jocelyn answers the door to Johnny, her Irish, yarn-spinning first husband whom she hasn’t seen in 50 years. The last and longest novella, “Fine Arts,” tracks Theresa’s doctoral study stint in Italy — a trip to research a 15th-century sculptor and to get over the disastrous fling with her married adviser. Jocelyn’s tale includes flashbacks to carefree days in Dublin. Theresa’s showcases the healing power of la dolce vita. Both illustrate how serenity is shattered by ‘the clanging ring tone of the end of love.’ ”

Top Ten contributor Valerie Martin observes in The New York Times Book Review : Because these four novellas don’t so much connect as evolve, they should be read in the order in which they’re presented. They build on one another, suggesting interesting dichotomies beyond the traditional positioning of innocence versus experience: travel versus exile, privilege versus affliction, idealism versus survival, responsibility versus complicity. Certain words — ‘affliction’ being most noteworthy, but also ‘privilege,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘shame,’ “contempt” and ‘rage’ — are repeated in different contexts until they begin to take on weight. The intelligence that breathes through the characters tirelessly raises the unanswerable questions that animate all great fiction, lifting the reader out of the story and into the realm of ethical dilemma and moral agony.

“What if you wasted your life by being afraid to live it? What if you were complicit in a great injustice? What if the person you most trusted and admired proved to be incompetent or cruel or mad? What if the worst came to the worst? For a stranger? For a neighbor? For a loved one? For you?”

Mary Gordon’s Top Ten List

1. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915).
2. The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (1937).
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
4. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916).
5. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (1939).
6. King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605).
7. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610).
8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
9. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817).
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).