Thursday, October 2, 2014

"The Liar's Wife," by Mary Gordon

I have been reading Mary Gordon for decades, and have always been a fan of her novels, stories, and memoirs. Her new book, “The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas,” doesn’t disappoint. The novella is not a very common form of fiction, but it has its advantages, being longer and more developed than a short story but more compact and to the point than a novel. Each of these four novellas is a gem. The title story tells of an older woman who is visited, after 50 years, by her first husband, Johnny, an Irishman to whom she was married for two years. She had been passionately in love with him, and they had moved from the U.S. to Ireland to live. But her attraction to and love for him couldn’t overcome her inability to accept his constant exaggerations. Now as she sees him and a new wife, down on their luck but still positive and optimistic, she wonders if she had given up some magic when she left him. She has had a good, even prosperous life with her good husband, but as people do when they get older, she can’t help thinking about what might have been. She knows in her heart that it would never have worked, but his visit makes her think about different paths in life, and what one gives up and gets with each life decision. The next two stories take famous writers/thinkers and imagine them in fictional situations: “Simone Weil in New York” and “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Both are intriguing blends of the real and the imagined, and both have much to say about choices people make, in this case in particular regarding World War II. The fourth story explores what a young woman learns during her months doing research in Europe. What she sees, especially the art, makes her rethink much about her life and about her lover/professor. Each of these four novellas is compelling and thought-provoking, exploring important questions and delineating fascinating characters. Gordon’s writing is, as always, exceptional.

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