Mary Gordon’s four novellas reveal how the past invades the present

Mary Gordon’s four novellas are complementary works that stand ably on their own.
Mary Gordon’s four novellas are complementary works that stand ably on their own. Courtesy photo

“The Liar’s Wife” by Mary Gordon (Pantheon Books, 288 pages, $25.95)

The four novellas by Mary Gordon (“Final Payments”) would appear at first glance to have few similarities, although the publisher describes them as stories of “Americans in Europe and Europeans in America.” Each story features an introspective protagonist who is initially timid and insecure, confronted with persons or situations seemingly beyond their abilities to handle.

In the eponymous first entry, “The Liar’s Wife,” 72-year-old Jocelyn is spending the weekend in her deceased mother’s house, a house she does not need but cannot bring herself to sell. She is surprised by the unexpected appearance of her first husband and his crass girlfriend. Jocelyn is intimidated by the exuberant, over-flowing nature of her former husband, Irish singer and bon vivant, Johnny Shaughnessy. Dining with Johnny and his girlfriend at a local pizzeria, she is mortified when she realizes Johnny has told the manager that she left Johnny years ago in Europe to go off with Mick Jagger – before the Rolling Stones. She is emotionally reminded of Johnny’s habitual fabrications that she could never condone or understand the need for. She remembers asking a mutual friend why Johnny told the false stories. “Probably because he wanted them to be true and he thought you’d like to hear them.”

As she spends just a few hours with an ailing Johnny, knowing it will be the last visit, she begins to see him more clearly than she ever did when they were married 50 years before and living in Dublin. And she begins to see herself more clearly as well. Even though she has been spared major tragedies, she has lived her life fearing the worst, waiting for the blows to land. Where she instinctively recoils from the uncertainty of life and her inability to understand it, Johnny celebrates the mystery and complexity of life’s offerings, welcoming them with an open heart. She realizes that even with all the lies, she is better for having known Johnny and is grateful for his brief reappearance in her life.

“Simone Weil in New York” is narrated by Genevieve, a young French woman in New York, married to a Jewish doctor who is serving in World War II in the South Pacific. She and her baby boy share a home with her brother, Laurent. Genevieve encounters her former, beloved teacher, Simone Weil, who is living temporarily in New York, having relocated her Jewish parents there for their safety during the war.

Weil, a real-life French philosopher and political activist, is here portrayed as shambling, ill kempt and clumsy, seemingly oblivious to social cues. She is consumed with the desire to use up her life in an attempt to better the lives of others. Her latest scheme involves parachuting nurses into battlefields, insisting that she be one of the first. She visits Genevieve and Laurent’s apartment and while Genevieve has always revered Mademoiselle Weil (as she continues to think of her former teacher), she fears her mundane life will be a disappointment to this venerated mentor. Even so, her teacher’s odd appearance, blunt speech, and self-punishing attitude make her an uncomfortable person to be with, and when she begins to impose her religious insights, Genevieve makes the final painful break.

“Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” presents another real-life personage brought into a fictional account. Bill Morton at the age of 90 looks back on the defining moment of his high school career and perhaps of his entire life. As a 17-year-old in 1939, Bill, the star of several high school plays, was chosen to be the student host for the famous German writer Thomas Mann, who is traveling the country on a speaking tour, recounting the dangers of Nazism. Two of Bill’s instructors, Mr. and Mrs. Hauptmann, undertake to prepare him for this singular honor. Conversations with the Hauptmanns begin to reveal to Bill the pervasive injustices all around him. In much the same way as the United States was slow to recognize the accelerating evil taking place in Germany, Bill is grateful to his teachers for opening his eyes, but at the same time he is saddened and burdened with this new understanding. “I knew it was better to know but I hated knowing it.”

Mann’s speech at the high school is an electrifying and a life-altering experience for young Bill. In looking back years later, Bill thinks Mann “believed it was his duty to wake us up from our stupid sleep, pulling off our blindfolds, unstopping our ears. The waking was a shock, a laceration, but it was one we needed. His words lanced the infection of our refusal to understand who we were, who we were in the world.”

In the final selection, “Fine Arts,” an art history doctoral candidate, Theresa Riordan, is in Italy on a grant for one month to research the obscure sculptor Matteo Civitali. Emotionally bound by her difficult childhood, an ill-fated love affair with her academic advisor, and an overarching insecurity, she is convinced that abundant privilege and pleasures in life are not for someone of her background and upbringing. But the piercing beauty of a Civitali sculpture opens her heart and mind. And the appearance of a wealthy benefactor guarantees a fairy tale happy ending. Perhaps the slightest of the quartet of novellas, “Fine Arts” is entertaining but lacks the depth of the other stories.

Gordon’s novellas are complementary works that stand ably on their own as well-crafted interior contemplations by narrators for whom the past is still very much present. How they integrate that past into their current lives provides the basis for four appealing studies of emotional growth.

Lois Carr is a retired librarian. She lives in Wichita.