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The Lair’s Wife, by Mary Gordon

April 29, 2014

lair's wifeThe Lair’s Wife, by Mary Gordon.   Pantheon, September, 2014.

Four beautifully crafted novellas by an established American author.

In her latest book, Mary Gordon continues to display the excellence and perception that have characterized her writing for over thirty years. Her characters still wrestle with big topics like truth, beauty, and suffering, sometimes expressing unexpected viewpoints. They experience ambiguity and conflicting feelings, but her writing remains light and polished, a pleasure to read.

The first of Gordon’s stories, from which the title of the collection was taken, is about Jocelyn, a woman in her seventies. She has lived a happy, comfortable life. She and her husband are still healthy and their grown children are doing well. Her former husband, with whom she lived briefly many years ago, visits and reminds her of why she had been attracted to him and why she left him. He is an Irish singer and storyteller, with little regard for what is true. His lies, even about himself, had left her feeling ungrounded. She realizes that she has taken refuge in truths that could keep her safe in a dangerous world, while he had loved life with all its risks and only tried to make others happy. Maybe she had missed out by clinging so closely to what could be proven as true. As someone who cherishes facts, I loved this subtle questioning of the importance of truth.

The next two stories are shaped around historical figures, whose actual lives and ideas Gordon provides at the end of the book. But neither story is primarily “about” the famous characters. Gordon focuses instead on their impact on particular individuals. In the first, Genevieve, a French woman, has married an American and is living in New York City during World War II, caring for her infant son and her invalid brother. Simone Weil, her former teacher, is also in the city. Although Genevieve had worshiped Weil when she was a student, now she sees her as vulnerable and ridiculous. Weil had taught the need for clear-headed confrontation with truth, but now Genevieve sees her as full of denial about basic facts.

The next story is about the impact that Thomas Mann had on a high-school boy from the Midwest. Bill is now in his sixties, remembering people who had been important in shaping his life. Among these is Mann, whom he once met, and two of his teachers who introduced him to a world beyond his narrow-minded town. In contrast to the previous story, Mann introduced him to larger issues of justice and the need to fight evil. Feeling guilt for having accepted the values of those around him, Bill realized that he was not as special as they had made him believe that he was. For me, the mood of this story and some of its details reminded me of the town in Oklahoma where I grew up and of the self-satisfaction of small-town America life in the mid-twentieth century.

The last story is titled “Fine Arts” and is another narrative of person whose life has been expanded by contact with those outside her family. As Theresa travels to Lucca, Italy, to begin research for her dissertation on Matteo Civiltali, a fifteenth- century sculptor, she thinks back on what has brought her to this point and questions the value of studying beauty from the past, another example of the ambiguity and internal conflict Gordon is known for.

I heartily recommend this book to all who enjoy well-written prose that makes them think.


Thanks to Pantheon for sending me an ebook copy for me to review.

One Comment leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    April 29, 2014 8:20 pm

    I love short stories! I have never read Gordon before, but in will add her to my list for sure!

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