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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Mary Gordon
Pantheon Books, 368 pages, $24.95
Finding the forgiveness within the family


Mary Gordon has once again created a literary engagement with atonement. It is primarily a story about a mother, Maria, and her daughter, Pearl. The 20-year-old daughter has always been puzzlingly passive, detached and somewhat withdrawn, a member of a generation Gordon describes as “sullen, worried, ill at ease.” Like so many of her peers, Pearl has spent her adolescence watching way too much MTV and has refused from an early age to share her mother’s interests, which are primarily social justice causes. Maria is a single mother who conceived Pearl with a courageous young Cambodian physician who escaped from the Pol Pot regime and came to New York in 1978 to raise money for the resistance efforts. He left New York before Maria knew she was pregnant with Pearl. Reentering Cambodia through the Thai jungle, he disappeared and is presumed dead.

As the novel opens, Maria comes home to her New York apartment from a Christmas gathering to find a message from the State Department on her answering machine. When she returns the call, she learns that Pearl, who has gone to Dublin for a year to study the Irish language at Trinity University, has chained herself to the flagpole in front of the American Embassy and has announced that she hasn’t eaten for six weeks and hasn’t taken any water for several days. Chained with her in a plastic folder are a public statement and two sealed letters, one addressed to her mother and one to her surrogate father, Joseph. Pearl’s public statement explains that she is offering her life as a witness, noting that she feels herself partially responsible for the death of an Irish boy because of an outburst on her part and that she is acting in support of the peace agreement, which may bring an end to the violence in Northern Ireland.

Nearly half the book, the section titled “The Travelers,” consists of flashbacks and the telling of the stories of three lives: Maria’s and Joseph’s, as they make their way to Dublin (she from New York and he from Rome), and also Pearl’s, especially her year there as a student situated among Irish friends and acquaintances. The remaining half of the novel, “Dubliners,” is centered on Pearl’s hospital room and her still critical medical condition. It is here that Ms. Gordon masterfully depicts vivid Catholic encounters with the examination of conscience -- skewed, of course, by human foibles -- as well as struggles with atonement and the striving for at least partial redemption within the family circle.

This novel is related by an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone in the story. Ms. Gordon’s narrator speaks in the first person directly to the reader throughout the book, offering various observations and even questions to ponder about the moral issues in the story. Some readers will experience this device as an enhancement of Ms. Gordon’s storytelling; others will feel that it interrupts the flow of the story.

Although the narrator announces early on that the rest of the novel will be a “chronicle,” rather than a “tale,” it is actually an allegory. In the final section of the book, the young person whose parents are Maria and Joseph becomes something of a holy child with Christ-like qualities, who recalls and follows Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness. Moreover, Ms. Gordon’s three main characters are emblematic: Maria and Pearl of their respective generations, and Joseph as a man unsure of his place in the world, uncertain that his decisions have been right. Ms. Gordon focuses not on Maria’s psyche as a motherless child but, rather, on her political coming-of-age in the ’60s, touching insightfully on the loss suffered by those who believed most deeply in the optimistic dreams of those few years in which everything seemed possible.

In the end, as these three characters find their place and their peace in a new alignment of interrelatedness, the novel becomes almost dreamlike. Fittingly, the benediction that hovers over it all is the loving pronouncement offered by the dead Irish boy in a dream of Pearl’s: “With so much to be forgiven, it would be strange not to forgive.”

Charlene Spretnak is the author of Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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