Reading this hefty book of short stories that explores the traits
and lives of everyday people is enough to wallop a reader in the
gut. The tales are all too real. The characters are never seen
through a kind pink haze; without softening, they show us --- in
unflinching prose --- jealousy, possessiveness, despair, loss and
more. And yet we cannot look away; Mary Gordon is describing
One theme running through the collection is the notion that the
past is never truly gone. The first story, "City Life," brings us
Beatrice, whose marriage to Peter is founded on the lie that her
parents are dead and her upbringing was normal. In fact, Beatrice
has no idea if her alcoholic parents in their filthy hopeless home
are still alive. Her life with Peter and her children is disrupted
when they move from their restored farmhouse in the country into a
New York City apartment. Beatrice meets her past there, and she can
no longer deny its power over her life.
The underbelly of love is another premise in many tales, such as
"Separation," in which a mother struggles with society's
expectation that her young child should bond with others besides
herself. The author poses a question: How powerful is the force of
maternal possessiveness? In this chilling piece, we see the
extreme, which is strong enough to warp lives.
The world constantly changes, as does our place in it. In "Death in
Naples," a family jaunt to Naples leaves an elderly widow searching
for both her own autonomy and landmarks of her past happy travels
with her late husband. Her quest leaves her lost in a world in
which she feels misplaced.
Catholicism is the underpinning of many of these stories. In "The
Deacon," a nun, Joan Fitzgerald, encounters a trying spiritual
challenge in the form of an inept teacher in the parish school in
which Joan is principal. The teacher, Gerard, is the one person
Joan feels she cannot stomach. Yet fate (or Gerard would say "God's
will") pushes them together in a solitary meal during which Joan
must make a difficult spiritual choice.
In "Bishop's House," Lavinia seeks solace at the home of elderly
friends. Another guest, also recovering from an ended romance,
tries the patience of everyone in the house. Lavinia discovers, in
a double twist of revelation, that no one is as they appear.
Revenge is served in "Cleaning Up" --- but instead of being
punishment for wrongdoing, it strives to chastise an unbearable act
of charity. The multilayered story acknowledges the deeply hidden
rationale of a seemingly irrational action.
In "Walt," the main character is stuck in a spider web where she
considers the ultimate and unforgivable cruelty: her own, toward
someone who loves her. The impulse to squelch him survives decades.
She can't stop yet she can't live with her actions.
THE STORIES OF MARY GORDON is not a light read, jabbing sharp,
unrelenting elbows into the reader and whispering, "Do you
recognize yourself?" The following passage in this collection's
"Storytelling" struck a chord with me. A new acquaintance is
speaking to the main character, who is a writer:
"Are all your books depressing?" asked Jean-Claude.
"I think I write about life as it is."
The tales Mary Gordon writes are about unadorned lives. While they
are sometimes bleak, they are also thought-provoking, engrossing
and unforgettable, making THE STORIES OF MARY GORDON a challenging
and rewarding read.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2011