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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A mature Mary Gordon
The plot of Mary Gordon's new book "Pearl" is eerily familiar. Like Carol Shields' "Unless" a mother's daughter is immolating herself. "Pearl" is in Dublin chained to a flagpole at the American embassy. And there you have the entire plot. Mary Gordon explores three characters, the mother, the daughter and the uncle-like figure who has been visiting in Rome when he...
Published on April 9, 2005 by M. C. Finan

versus
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I didn't, but some will need toothpicks...
My feelings about the novel vary. There are aspects of it that I truly enjoyed, and aspects that I found weighty or hmmm... slow.

"Slow" is a death-knell of a word, in book reviews, so I want to qualify my use of the word here, because truly, Pearl is a book well worth reading, but one should maybe know a few things ahead of time.

Like, for instance,...
Published on September 15, 2006 by Cipriano


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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A mature Mary Gordon, April 9, 2005
By 
M. C. Finan (La Mirada, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
The plot of Mary Gordon's new book "Pearl" is eerily familiar. Like Carol Shields' "Unless" a mother's daughter is immolating herself. "Pearl" is in Dublin chained to a flagpole at the American embassy. And there you have the entire plot. Mary Gordon explores three characters, the mother, the daughter and the uncle-like figure who has been visiting in Rome when he finds out about Pearl's intended sacrifice.

This book is really an extended development of the main characters, their lives, their loves, their fears. I realized about half way through the book that I was still finding out about each of the characters and I was being gently surprised with each discovery. Resonances of Irish fatalism, sacrifice and Catholicism, faith and Judaism sound throughout the book.

However, this is not a religious book, it is a human book. I have read each book of Mary Gordon's and this is by far her most mature and deepest work.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging read with a crisp plot & believeable characters, February 20, 2005
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
Honore de Balzac wrote, "A mother who is really a mother is never free." It is true that the maternal bond may be one of the strongest forces in the universe. A mother's heart is always with her child, even when --- or perhaps especially when --- that child is far away. And a grown child is no exception. So what happens in a mother's heart and mind when she learns that her child is far away and in danger? What if the danger is self-inflicted?

These questions take center stage in Mary Gordon's latest novel, PEARL. Single mother Maria Meyers is celebrating a quiet Christmas in New York when she finds out that her twenty-year-old daughter Pearl, who is attending school in Ireland, has chained herself to the American Embassy in Dublin and has not eaten for six weeks. Pearl has written a statement saying that her death by starvation is meant to mark the death of a young man who recently has been killed. Even more than that, Pearl's actions are meant to witness the "will to harm" she finds in humanity.

Maria is unaware of Pearl's connection to the boy and is confused and saddened to learn that Pearl feels in some way responsible for his death. She feels helpless and alone knowing that her daughter is so far away and in so much pain. On the flight to Dublin, Maria tries to remain calm but is struggling to keep her feelings in check as she rushes to rescue Pearl. Also making the painful journey to help Pearl is Joseph Kasperman, who Maria grew up with and who Pearl has trusted and loved all her life. As the two travel to Dublin, readers learn all about their complicated relationship, Pearl's childhood, and the events that drove her to desperate measures.

Gordon's prose is amazing; heartfelt and honest but not sappy, and emotional without being overwrought. There are so many themes present in the book: family relationships, the struggle for political and civil freedom, individual responsibility, and the question of human nature. Still, the story is never muddled; Gordon does a commendable job of keeping the plot crisp, the characters true and believable, and the reader interested. It is only with Joseph's thread of the story that the novel drags ever so slightly.

Pearl's suicide attempt is about politics but it is mostly about witnessing --- not just the life and death of one individual who has died senselessly, but also the lives and deaths of so many who have, and do, all the time. It is also about Pearl trying to find a voice and identity in what feels to her like a chaotic and troubled world. Because she doesn't think that her voice is loud enough or strong enough to make a difference, she believes that her body will make a bigger statement.

Her act of sacrifice forces Maria and Joseph to assess their lives and their relationship to each other and to Pearl as they reach out to try and save her from a burden they do not understand.

Maria is a fierce character; she's protective of her daughter yet blind to her daughter's real needs. In her Gordon has created an interesting, not always likeable but quite understandable, character. Pearl is very compelling and Gordon writes her story with sympathy, thoughtfulness and wisdom. Gordon's narrative style is quite unique --- an omniscient and personal, unnamed narrator who shares with readers a concern for the characters.

In the end, neither Pearl, who had wanted to be, nor Maria, who had hoped never to be, are free from each other and their complicated, realistically portrayed relationship. The final chapter, almost hidden in the hardback edition, finds them together, trying to heal and understand each other. Gordon writes, "We will hope for the best."

--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I didn't, but some will need toothpicks..., September 15, 2006
This review is from: Pearl (Paperback)
My feelings about the novel vary. There are aspects of it that I truly enjoyed, and aspects that I found weighty or hmmm... slow.

"Slow" is a death-knell of a word, in book reviews, so I want to qualify my use of the word here, because truly, Pearl is a book well worth reading, but one should maybe know a few things ahead of time.

Like, for instance, that the first few pages are a bit misleadingly promising.

By that I mean that they contain more real action in them than is to be found in the next 200! Admittedly, the book [I think] really gets the reader involved in its end pages, but these parenthetical highpoints bracket an immense amount of musings upon family, religion, and politics. A lot of nostalgic montage. Stuff that may call for toothpicks to hold open the eyes of some readers.

Secondly, the author has employed an all-knowing [God-like], yet totally unknown [to the reader] in the final analysis, narrator. In some ways it seems disappointing that we are never really shown who is telling the story. At one point, the narrator pops out from behind his or her curtain, and says, "Think of me this way: midwife, present at the birth. Or perhaps this: godfather, present at the christening."

Well... I don't know. I think I would like to know which it is!

Maybe for some, this would be OK. But for me, I found myself unduly preoccupied with wanting to know who this narrator is.

Deconstructionist DeconSHMUCKtionist!

But thirdly, and positively now, I am a reader that enjoys good [detailed, onion-peeling] character development, and I think we have that here, in this book.

Here's the gist of the story itself.

A New York Christmas night [not dark and stormy, that we know of...] the year, 1998. Maria Meyers returns from a party to find a phone message from the State Department, advising her to contact them. She learns that her 20 year old daughter Pearl, studying language at a university in Ireland, has brought herself to the brink of death by starvation and then chained herself to the flagpole of the U.S. Embassy. Motive currently unknown.

Maria is appropriately horrified. This is out of character for Pearl. A mother's worst news! "She packs her bag." [p.9].

Then she calls Joseph, an old family friend in Rome who thinks of Pearl as a daughter, and the two of them set off immediately for Dublin from their separate locations.

"Do you think she'll die?" Maria asks.

"No, I don't think she will die," he says. "You won't let her."

The thing is, Maria herself is someone who is well-acquainted with protest, with activism. Sort of a flower-child of the `60's, she marched and demonstrated and ranted as did so many others of that generation, in the turbulent days of Vietnam, Kent State, and the assassination of JFK.

Now her own daughter is staging this protest... willing to lay down her life in a cause that Maria does not understand.

The bulk of the book explores why Pearl is doing what she is doing... and we learn along with Maria [actually, long before Maria, thanks to our narrator who is way ahead of the airplanes] the cause of Pearl's angst with life. She is sacrificing her life to "bear witness" to the death of a young boy, an event for which she feels partially responsible, as well as to make a political statement for the peace process in Ireland.

Martyrs, hunger-strikers, suicide bombers, terrorists. These deliberate self-orchestrations of death are something we are all familiar with. Like, if you own a TV, you are familiar with it. And so the novel raises [I think] a lot of important issues, and asks profound questions of its readers, and of its characters.

Is there anything truly worth dying for?

Is there anything worth living for?

Is it always desirable to live?

The strength of this novel [for me] is found in the portrayal of the changes wrought within Maria, Joseph and Pearl as they grapple with these universal questions. At one point, it is put this way: "Why is it that it's life we want?" [p.341].

I found it compelling. Rich in its philosophical musings. I will always choose this, if the option is the BANG-SMASH-POW of pointless plot. I guess it's my inner-Dostoyevsky, coming up for air!

Mary Gordon is successful at making me believe that for some people, the conclusion "Life is worth living" is not easily arrived at!

Recommended by Bookpuddle with a rating of 3 puddles out of a possible 5, and with the proviso that you remember that I am Dostoyevsky reincarnate!
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Pearl" of a novel, August 3, 2005
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
When I read the reviews on line, I was amazed at the range, from 1 star to 5. I feel those that gave this wonderful, engrossing novel only 1 star just didn't get it. Mary Gordon, I believe, is not trying to tell a universal tale, although horrors occur all over the world. What she has written is a deeply personal, heartfelt novel of three people whose lives are intertwined against the background of the political situation in Ireland. Her exquisite writing and precisely drawn characters hook you from the first page. Kudos to Mary Gordon!
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as it seems, August 8, 2005
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
This book turned out not at all what I expected. After reading the first 20 pages or so, I assumed it was simply a tale of a mother rescuing her daughter. It is that but not what I thought.

What I found enjoyable and unique about the writing style is that the story is told from all points of time and person. Though this could be confusing, the author does an excellent job of maintaining pace and direction when switching from narration to dialogue. The narrator is never revealed although the story unfolds as a re-telling from some future perspective. Almost like listening to someone tell you a story of 3 people he/she once knew. At points the story is also written from the present, first-person point of view. This offers the reader a glimpse into each character's frame of mind and certainly adds realism.

I love also that the 'narrator' uses the events of the plot to raise philosophocal questions. The author asks the reader 'why do we choose to live?', 'is there anything unforgivable, and if not then what of justice?'. I found this extremely intriguing, as if I was somehow playing a part in the outcome of the book.

Another thing the author accomplishes is presenting, through the characters, the idea that people are not always what they seem or who we think them to be. Each of us has the capacity for good and bad, the ability to help or to harm, to believe or discredit. I think this book is a wonderful look into the human experience.

My only fault with this book is the editing. I listed at least 4 grammatical errors and typos. Although I could infer what the author meant to say, I find it highly aggravating that highschool teachers pay more attention to spelling and grammar than a major publishing company. If you expect thousands of people to read your work, I would hope that you would have it proof-read enough times to fix common mistakes.

Other than the typos, I found this book very enjoyable and thought-provoking. I recommend it to anyone.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Pearl, August 6, 2005
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
This is the densest and most serious of all of Mary Gordon's novels. It is not an easy read. I am reminded of that as I read the other reviews here. Nor is it particularly entertaining. But I was deeply moved. Loss, sacrifice and forgiveness are the themes of this big book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Start high/end low, April 24, 2005
By 
bks (Madison, CT USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
From the beginning, I was amazed with Ms. Gordon's ability to explore, to really know, her characters and the complicated nuances of relationships---I believe like few can. As a mother it was easy to relate to the "whys and hows" when you believe that you have done only the best.

Everything connected and flowed nicely until the end when Joseph confronts Pearl in the hospital. It wasn't necessary and it felt very misplaced in such a carefully plotted out complicated story. The book fell apart for me when he entered Pearl's room. I was so disappointed. Until then it was a 5 star.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The 'Antigone effect' & 'anorectic euphoria', March 16, 2005
This review is from: Pearl: A Novel (Hardcover)
The novel presents complicated issues of faith and its loss, the value of living and dying for a belief in a society that has shelved (if not solved) the issue of a Divine Presence, and the appeal and drawbacks of an Ireland that now resembles more the New than the Old World for returning Yanks. What will be most challenging to any reader unaccustomed to the editorial omniscience in Victorian triple-decker novels such as those of Dickens, Thackeray, or Eliot will be Gordon's use of a garrulous and always intrusive narrator who goads us along and guides the story in and out of the predicaments and pensiveness of Pearl, Maria, and Joseph. I let this voice wash over me for dozens of pages at a time, resisting and then surrendering and then being annoyed anew.

Maria resents Pearl's boyfriend Finbar (note previously an error on pg. 271: "The Gardai" recalled by a native from the north of Ireland as invading homes in Belfast. As the gardai are the state police south of the border, this is at present improbable to impossible!): `She almost says, You are simply going to have to stop condescending to me. But she needs to keep his favor. She still hasn't heard Stevie's story, which seems to be connected, somehow, to Pearl's. Without this information, she's paralyzed.' (280). I felt the same way about what I call this `recording angel' that never seemed to let the story take its own course, who constantly, like Jiminy Cricket or perhaps a voice of reason, kept up a running commentary like a `color man' chattering while the sports game carries you on with its own energy, no need for added banter. Still, this irritating if sometimes endearing feature of narrative is rarely used at length in popular contemporary fiction, and Gordon's to be admired if also resented for daring such an insistently patronising mode of conveying the details of her long and serious novel.

It could have benefited from some of the gallows humour beloved by the Irish, New York and Dubliner alike. Gordon's tackling generational changes, maternal love, and the end of idealism, so perhaps, like Maria and Joseph, 60s earnestness trumps the `whatever' generation the hippies spawned. The voice may be that of, as it tells us, a sort of pre-Marlon Brando godfather to Pearl; I preferred thinking of it as a female angel, myself.

Allusions to biblical events and figures grow as the novel progresses for some satisfying typological comparisons between Judas, Mary Magdalene, the Resurrection, and classical figures like the aforementioned Antigone. Dr Morrisey poses as a great foil to the no-nonsense Maria, and their showdowns wittily play off New York and Irish characterisations. Pearl's father, in case you're wondering, is a briefly present Cambodian doctor. This makes the hunger striker, as her father conceives of to her mother: `If we should have a child it would be very impure: Jewish, Russian, Cambodian, Catholic, Buddhist. A real mess. I am in love with the idea of mess. The mess is our only hope against the tyranny of the pure.' (95)

The RIRA and hard-line militants represents the pure; Pearl counters with her own assertion of a trans-national identity. She becomes an emblem of the object at one with the color. This, in an early aside, matches what the narrator notes about Irish, in its equivalence of white, grey, and yellow with the meanings of brightness/wisdom, stone, and noble. Pearl sees, in her delirium, detached faces as if cut-outs from her past, of Stevie and others she has loved and known. This scene reminded me of French Symbolist art of a century ago: faces like petals, falling from a branch upon a blank and therefore pure background. In Pearl's quest for equivalence, the deed of starvation blurs into suicide so that martyrdom and witnessing cannot be disentangled. Her embodiment is her chosen path to enlightenment. What Maria, the doctor, and Joseph come to represent in their intervention you can discover for yourself.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intelligent Read, September 30, 2006
This review is from: Pearl (Paperback)
Mary Gordon has published five novels, a book of novellas, a collection of short stories, a memoir, two books of essays, and a biography of Joan of Arc. She is a recipient of the Lila Acheson Wallace Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a 1997 O. Henry Prize for best short story. Her latest novel, "Pearl," may delve into similar issues as her other works: religion, motherhood, feminism, yet it is unlike anything I have read before.

Immediately the reader learns of the crisis at the center of the book: Maria, a feminist single mother receives a call from the state department informing her that her daughter has chained herself to the flag pole outside the American Embassy in Dublin. She hasn't eaten for six weeks and her death has been planned to coincide with the celebration of the birth of Christ. We feel Maria's initial shock and helplessness as she makes plans to fly to Ireland.

What makes this novel so unique is Gordon's use of a sort of benign, cerebral narrator to tie the threads of three lives together and to clue the reader into all the nuances that led Pearl, Maria's daughter, to commit such a desperate, deliberate act of sacrifice. It's as if the reader is thrust into the action and then through skillful, yet sometimes painfully slow narration, the reader learns the why of it.

Tackling large issues such as Catholicism, Judaism, anorexia, Irish politics, martyrdom, feminism, motherhood, despair, human propensity toward violence, Gordon is fearless in illuminating all for the reader's examination.

In the letter given to Maria, Pearl writes:

"Try to call upon the values you have given me: a love of justice, a need to bear witness to the truth. I am doing this in the name of justice, in witness to the truth. I am marking a wrongful death, for which I was responsible, and other public wrongs that will lead to death and more death."

Pearl, a student of language, believes that her death will be the ultimate sentence, the viable only sentence she can offer in the name of her despair.

And in the letter given to a family friend, Joseph, the son of her Maria's father's housekeeper:

"I believe that of all people you will understand this best, will comprehend most fully the decisions I have made. A boy died because of me. Because I rendered him as nothing in my self-righteous blindness in the name of an idea. I made a thing of him. I stole his faith and hope.

I know about some things that you and my mother never told me: faith, hope, and love. I have never naturally been a person of hope. Nor, I believe, have you. I have lost my faith in the goodness of life. Replacing that belief: a belief about malignity. In the will to harm. And the dismay that this impulse is in myself."

Pearl has come to martyr herself not only out of profound guilt, but because she has lost her ability to see humanity in anything but the most dire of terms. To see any of characteristics other than the will to harm. The narrative offers examples of the most shocking genocides experienced in history: the Holocaust; Rwanda; Bosnia; Cambodia. And other equally horrific examples of violence on the smaller scale all brought to the page so that the reader may understand Pearl's despair. Fortunately, Gordon has also included forgiveness and redemption in the mix making the experience of reading the book a more fully realized contemplation on human nature.

At times the exposition feels slow, but by the end it won me over and I have come to see that slowness as one of its many good qualities. It allows the reader time to digest difficult, often painful, issues at a pace conducive to thought. This is not a novel to be devoured but rather savored. And a novel not to be missed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Drags along at a snail's pace, January 23, 2009
This review is from: Pearl (Paperback)
This book may have had a point, but took so long getting there that I was half asleep. While the plot was a good idea, Gordon dwells way too deeply into abstract ideas rather than the interesting story that is going on. Her writing is also condescending at times- "You probably want to know..." and "You probably think..." are used way too liberally. This book just dragged too much for me.
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Pearl
Pearl by Mary Gordon (Paperback - April 11, 2006)
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