on August 11, 2014
THE LIAR'S WIFE by Mary Gordon is a collection of four introspective and quite literary novellas centering on themes of transformation and place.
“Simone Weil in New York” introduces Genevieve Levy, a young French wife and mother, and former philosophy student, living with her brother and 13-month-old son in New York. Her husband, an American doctor, is stationed overseas. Though she knew that her former teacher, the eccentric philosopher and activist Simone Weil, was currently in New York as well, she is shocked to see her across the street, calling to her wearing a filthy beret and cape. After nine years, Mlle Weil is suddenly back in Genevieve's life --- coming around for tea and visiting her and her brother, an important psychologist. Her time with the strange and brilliant Weil, who is trying to get back to Europe despite the fact that she and her parents, who are secular Jews, escaped Hitler to come to New York, forces Genevieve to consider her own place in the world. She is French, but her son and husband are American. She was raised Christian but is studying Hebrew and raising her son Jewish. She had a promising academic career ahead of her, but now is primarily a caretaker for her son and disabled brother. She is both drawn to and repelled by Weil.
In the story, Genevieve confronts ideas of genius and respect, love and loyalty, as she examines the woman she has grown into over the past decade by considering her former teacher. The historical character of Simone Weil is deftly handled by Gordon, who captures the strangeness, illogic and powerful intelligence she was known for. Genevieve is a compelling counterbalance to Weil; quiet but smart, also displaced and one who feels the need to care for others, even to her own detriment.
“Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” shares much in common with the novella about Simone Weil. Here also, Gordon gives readers a young and impressionable student who confronts a greatness that changes his life. In 1939 (just a handful of years before the Simone Weil story takes place), Bill Morton, a high school senior known for landing all the leading roles in school plays, is selected to introduce the famous German novelist Thomas Mann at a school event and then drive him to Chicago. This is arranged by Bill's favorite teachers, the Hauptmanns, Jewish intellectuals who don't quite fit into Gary, Indiana culture. The encounter with Mann, as well as his time learning with the Hauptmanns, inspire Bill to view the world in ways he may not have otherwise.
In the titular novella, “The Liar's Wife,” Jocelyn's long-estranged Irish husband shows up one morning after decades without contact, needing a place for him and his brassy American girlfriend to stay for one night. Jocelyn spends the evening with them, but all the while is remembering both the passionate affair that brought her to Ireland to be with him and the devastating realities that drove her home to America. Of the four stories, this is perhaps the most readable and well paced, while the final tale, “Fine Arts,” is probably the clumsiest.
Still, all four novellas are interesting explorations of self-identity and the expectations of others, place and displacement, and the challenge of big ideas and even bigger personalities.
Written in a serious manner, with only occasional moments of levity, THE LIAR'S WIFE is a meaty and thoughtful book. Readers looking for action or fast-paced narrative will not find that here: these are stories told in memory and questions by characters still moved by encounters and ideas that shaped them in pivotal moments. Wordy and poignant, emotional and insightful, this is a demanding and often difficult work of fiction from the talented Mary Gordon.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman.
on September 20, 2014
I was first captivated by mary gordon's writing when we were both young and boundlessly optimistic. she spoke to me then and still does. decades have elapsed and perhaps we've grown wiser and wearier. But Ms Gordon;s work is as incisive and relevant to me now as it was then. I too inhabit the same changing bewildering world where all the rules seemed to have changed and concepts like integrity and moral character are considered quaint at best. Thank you Ms Gordon for reminding us of our humanity. Thank you for being willing to be that beautiful voice.
One of the characters in this collection of four long stories or short novellas (around 70 pages each) has devised a means of communicating with the handicapped that involves the person selecting the one object from a set of four that does not match the other three. I find myself applying the principle to Mary Gordon’s stories, each more enjoyable than the one before, whose unity I can sense but not exactly define. So here goes.
Might it be the title story, with which the book opens? It is the only one whose ostensible action involves characters in their seventies rather than their twenties, although the important things happen in flashback to fifty years earlier. Jocelyn is a timid woman in her seventies, living alone in Connecticut while her husband is away. She gets a surprise visit from her first husband, Johnny Shaughnessy, an Irish singer she had loved madly in her twenties. At first it seems there is no comparison between her manicured life and that of this superannuated troubadour and his blowsy partner, playing the bar circuit as “Dixie and Dub.” But by the time the story is over, the moral balance will have shifted, and beautifully so.
Or is it “Simone Weill in New York” that is the odd one? Like all the others, it features a young person in her twenties learning lessons that will change the rest of her life, but here the main focus is elsewhere. Genevieve is a Frenchwoman married to a New York doctor. On Riverside Drive, in 1942, she runs into the philosophy teacher from her high school in Le Puy, Simone Weill. Unwell, ill-dressed, and eccentric, the Christian-Jewish philosopher and humanitarian is desperately trying to get parachuted back into occupied France. But although Weill is the secondary character, it is the fascination with her life and the religious and moral questions that she raises that make the main reasons for reading this extraordinarily accomplished and subtle story.
The title character in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” turns out to be little more that a catalyst. What makes the story different from the rest is that its protagonist/narrator, Bill Morton, is a man. He is selected by the faculty of the Horace Mann High School in Gary to host the (fictitious) visit of the great German writer in 1939, when he spoke about the dangers of the Nazi regime. But it is less what Mann said (on other occasions, if not this one) that is of interest, so much as Bill’s personal and political awakening, which will affect the rest of his long life.
The twentyish protagonist in the final story, “Fine Arts,” is a doctoral student in Art History at Yale visiting Lucca in Italy in connection with her proposed dissertation on the sculptor Matteo Civitali. A naïve innocent in the ways of the world, Theresa Riordan has been basically nurtured by nuns until arriving at Yale. Her delayed coming-of-age story takes several interesting turns before reaching its unexpected ending, which clearly sets it apart from the other three, which close, as it were, with ellipses rather than a period or exclamation point. But Theresa’s experiences of Italy were so like my own as an art-historical student fifty years earlier that I was rooting for her all along, and more than ready to cheer at the end.
on September 19, 2014
These four novellas are of the outstanding quality to which Mary Gordon's fans have become accustomed. When there is a new release, it is like traveling to a cherished, pristine landscape with old friends meeting to explore the most essential and revelatory contents of the mind, heart and spirit. Each novella is a gem, with very distinct and unrelated subject matter and characters.
The Liar's Wife deals with the main character's “past” visiting her in the form of an ex, with pathos and humor, and resultant soul-searching and discomfort.
Simone Weil in New York is a very brilliant blend of an actual, historical figure in a fictional situation with a previous student and her brother. Simone is awkward and brilliant, clueless and at the same time possessive of a very high level of philosophy. An idealist, at odds with a sometimes brutal world, she is as vulnerable as a child, and at some times her interpersonal shortcomings render her offensive and extremely annoying. The point of view and story belongs to Simone's former student, a character of depth and insight, and aware of her own shortcomings.
Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana is another blend of history with fiction. The main character provides the voice in this story, a doctor, who, as a high school student was selected to present an introductory speech to an assembly of his fellow students, honoring Thomas Mann, who came to deliver a speech encouraging America to fight against the evils of Hitler. Mary Gordon has created such a touching and believable character in the first person, as he relates his story with humor, irony, not a small amount of self-deprecation in relief to the aura of “greatness.”
Fine Arts is set part of the time in Italy, and explores a young woman's coming to terms with a love affair gone wrong, her passionate love of art as she works on an advanced degree, and twists and turns that evoke some of the same themes in her enjoyable novel Spending. A great deal of excellent research went into the art history concerning Civitali, an early Renaissance sculptor, and the details of Italy. The inner struggles and observations of the main character were very believable and touching.
There are places and things that bring us back to the people we were. Especially touching to me is the title story in which a mature woman is visited by the husband of her youth along with his present companion. She had fled him after a year, feeling that the world was just too unsteady around her with the stories that he told. In an interesting perspective he believes the lies he tells are the basis of love because they protect people from some realities. They are living in Ireland shortly before the hostilities begin to tear the city apart, and with no idea why, she feels that nothing is as it seems. Built as a teller of truth, the lies of her first husband had set her to feeling too vulnerable. The language is deeply evocative of that feeling of disconnect, seeing a person with whom you had been deeply and passionately in love, years after the feeling had cooled but not disappeared. Nothing is overstated and nothing is too hushed. The tone is exactly on target.
The rest of the book follows the lead of the first story. Especially in the second story, the return of dreams and loves bring our former selves in tow. This story set during WWII with two women who both had fled the Nazis, still makes universal the fear of the world as containing many possible ambushes. Should one face them head on or should one try to hide? When the past comes knocking is it possible to to ignore the less formed people we once were?
Despite the underlying current of threat, this is not a gloomy book. There are bright spots in these lives and these characters are not isolate hermits dwelling on fear. This is a book about everyday people, the historical eras notwithstanding. I am impressed with the author and her mastery of the short novel form.
“The Liar’s Wife” is only one of the four novellas in this book. Veteran writer Gordon has produced stories where the protagonists are all knocked out of their comfort zones and find themselves contemplating life changing moral issues.
In the first, the title story, a 70-some year old woman is surprised by the appearance of her ex-husband. They were only married a short time before she fled, unable to settle into a life in Ireland with a musician husband who, of course, lies continually. Her life has been comfortable; happy children, career she liked, good husband, three houses. His has been the opposite, but he feels he’s lived life to the fullest. Whose life has been better? Has one been a waste?
In “Simone Weil in New York” the protagonist is a young woman who was one of Weil’s students in France. Now married to an American doctor who is stationed in the Pacific Theater during WW 2, with a baby and living with her brother, she encounters Weil in the street. She is not happy to see her; she represents all that has been lost because of the war. As a student she had loved and revered Weil; now she feels a tangle of feelings. Weil feels an obligation to live as the poorest live; does that help anyone? Should Genevieve feel guilty for being safe in America instead of being part of the French Resistance? Can she break free of Weil’s philosophy?
The narrator in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” is an old man, looking back on his life. The high point of his life was when, in high school, he was selected to present the visiting Thomas Mann to the school. Mann has left Germany because of the Nazi regime and is visiting the school to lecture on what is happening in Germany. Like Weil, Mann cannot enjoy his own freedom and success because of guilt over what is going on in his native country; this opens the high school boy’s eyes to the racism that is so casually accepted in America- so casually that no one ever really sees it.
My favorite story is the last one, “Fine Arts”. A college student who has been given a grant to go overseas to study the work of sculptor Citivali for her doctoral thesis. Theresa has had a hard life; her childhood was taken up with caring for a bed ridden father; her teens taken up with studying. Her one indulgence has been an affair with her married mentor, who is a self absorbed ass. Two of the sculptures that she wishes to study are in a private collection; the owner turns Theresa’s life upside down and completely reverses her situation.
All four protagonists wrestle with moral issues. Is what they are doing worthwhile? Are they wasting their lives? Is it all right to enjoy your life while others suffer? It sounds grim, but the stories are very engaging and thought provoking without being heavy. The prose is so… perfect… that it just leads you on into the stories.
These four stories— two contemporary and the other two set in the Thirties and Forties—are reminders of the virtues of classic fiction. The characters in all of them have some tie to various countries in Europe, but they are essentially American and collectively they tell us a lot about American culture. Gordon draws on historical characters of Simone Weil and Thomas Mann in two stories to illuminate her subjects, and there are notes about both at the end. I urge you not to read them until you finish the novellas; you may want to know more, but there's enough on the page to make her point.
All the principal characters in this book are reflective. Some have lived long lives which they recall in a new light. Others are young and discovering the broader world. But it is Gordon's vision that makes them sing, and she's so observant and accomplished at revealing the right information at the right time that it sometimes took my breath away.
I read this on my Kindle, but I may buy a hard copy for easy access on my shelf.
Mary Gordon first came to our attention decades ago with her novel FINAL PAYMENTS which revolved around the protagonist's father's death. This novel was a huge success for her, both critically and popularly, and she has never attained that height again popularly. She is always well regarded critically. Ironically, FINAL PAYMENTS, is probably more germane than ever as now all we baby boomers have experienced what she so brilliantly wrote about all those years ago. If you feel you are not up to novellas or long stories which is the focus of this book, then begin with that first novel instead before reading this.
I will single out like every other reviewer here, the title novella, "The Liar's Wife", as extraordinary. A woman in her 70s gets together with her first husband and his girlfriend, same ages, whom she hasn't seen since she divorced him while in her early 20s. They are in America but he is from Ireland. It is a tour de force of characterization and theme, covering everything from love, to aging, to hindsight to lives well lived and not so well lived. If there is any literary award for this size of writing, 63 pages, this story should get that prize(s).
As for this book, Gordon remains a first class writer who covers the quirkiest of characters, to wit, Simone Weil in NYC, Thomas Mann in the Midwest, etc., But the title piece most will find the best. You don't read Gordon for plot. You read her for character, exposition and theme. This is a keeper.
Visit my blog with link given on my profile page here or use this phonetically given URL (livingasseniors dot blogspot dot com). Friday's entry will always be weekend entertainment recs from my 5 star Amazon reviews in film, tv, books and music. These are very heavy on buried treasures and hidden gems. My blogspot is published on Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
on December 17, 2014
I love this book. Mary Gordon is one of America's most gifted contemporary writers.
Gordon's characters are highly intelligent, sensitive people who have suffered financial or emotional hardships as children, most of them living with or caring for for handicapped relatives. Her older adults review their lives, reflecting on how their past experiences shaped them. Her young people find solace and caring mentors in school. Nuns, mothers and educators play important roles in each of these tales. Generally they have risen above what the author calls a "middlebrow" background. They appreciate the educational opportunities given to them, love art, write poetry, and feel deeply.
Although the book is composed of four seemingly distinct units, there is such a sense of thematic unity that I wonder if these tales are based on Mary Gordon's own life. World War Two-related experiences and American innocence and ignorance of conditions abroad are woven into the fabric of each of these stories. The final novella is superb until it concludes with a strangely unsatisfying fairy-tale ending.
Mary Gordon's understanding of human nature is superb, as is her use of language, imagery and character development.
on September 12, 2014
Four novellas from the always-capable Mary Gordon. Three are outstanding. The fourth, revolving about the visit to the United States by Simone Weil, a French crypto-Catholic, Jewish-born anti-Semite, is less effective. Ms. Gordon, raised Catholic, who has written a compelling memoir about discovering that her staunch Catholic father was born Jewish, has an effective grasp of the theology of both faiths. However, her portrayal of Ms. Weil, a brilliant student and teacher, as a curmudgeon and close-minded bigot, makes one wonder why any sentient being would value her judgment. The other stories are beautifully crafted, especially the opening novella about a rekindled relationship, and the last, where a sensitive art scholar finds a muse in an elderly American expatriate in Italy. Ms. Gordon's character development has always been spot-on, and, at least in three of the four pieces, her reputation doesn't suffer.