The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas
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.
"Written in a serious manner, with only occasional moments of levity, THE LIAR'S WIFE is a meaty and thoughtful book.... Wordy and poignant, emotional and insightful, this is a demanding and often difficult work of fiction from the talented Mary Gordon."
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 August 8, 2014
The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas
- Publication Date: August 5, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon
- ISBN-10: 0307377431
- ISBN-13: 9780307377432