Friday, November 07, 2014

The Liar's Wife by Mary Gordon

The Liar’s Wife is a collection of four novellas by Mary Gordon. The novellas are thematically linked in that in each one someone revisits an important past relationship. Sometimes it’s by examining a memory, but in other cases the protagonist is faced with the actual person, as in the story “Simone Weil in New York,” where a young woman encounters her old teacher, Simone Weil, in Central Park.

In this story, Genevieve, the student, is a grown woman with a husband and a baby. As they become reacquainted, she finds Mlle. Weil’s anxieties and eccentricities disturbing, and as evidence of her instability, instead of awe-inspiring signs of her brilliance. Yet ultimately she is not surprised by her own change in perception. I identified with Genevieve’s experience of reexamining her impressions and drawing different conclusions. It’s a universal experience, no?

Two of the novellas feature real-life characters as well as fictional ones: Simone Weil and Thomas Mann, who appears in “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” That story highlights Mann's speaking tour of the U.S. in the late 1930’s, where he tried to call attention to the horrors of Nazi Germany to a mostly uninterested U.S. public.

Incorporating a real person into a fictional world introduces a whole subtext that may or may not be accessible to the reader. Note the parallel titles of the two novellas. Would either of these stories have worked the same way if Gordon replaced Weil or Mann with fictional versions of their characters? I wonder. In truth, I preferred the two novellas that had only fictional characters, especially the title story, "The Liar’s Wife," about a woman who receives a midnight visit from her first husband, a man she hasn’t seen in many many years.

Mary Gordon is a Serious Writer. I’ve read most of her earlier novels but have found her more recent stuff harder to get into, as she has turned to nonfiction to explore her relationships with her family and with Catholicism. I was happy to have something new from her that was more like the older stuff I remember reading. But that reflects more on me as a reader than on Gordon as a writer.

(Book 21, 2014)

3 comments:

Sam Sattler said...

I'm reading this same collection at the moment (I'm near the end of the second piece), and I have to agree with you. The first story of just fictional characters worked much better for me than the one I'm reading now that features Weil as a character. I'm curious now to see if that holds up for me in the second pair of "novellas."

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