FICTION: A quartet of novellas about Americans at home and overseas and their recollections of key players from their pasts.
“We all forget things. We must.” So states one character to another in the last in this quartet of richly imagined and finely wrought novellas by Mary Gordon. However, forgetting is easier said than done for each protagonist. Memories, happy and sad, flood back to enchant or torment. Blasts from the past, in particular first loves, invade present thoughts and even turn up again on doorsteps. In remembering and reliving friendships and relationships, and depicting new lives with and without old flames, Gordon traces both our ability to survive independently and our fundamental need to connect.
All four novellas that make up “The Liar’s Wife” deal either with Americans in foreign lands or Europeans on American turf. The European subjects of two of her novellas are factual people held in awe by fictitious secondary characters. “Simone Weil in New York” charts the French intellectual’s fish-out-of-water immigrant experience in the Big Apple in 1942 through the eyes of Genevieve, one of her former philosophy students. “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” (as incongruous a pairing as Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”) sees 90-year-old Billy looking back on his encounter with the German author in 1939. Gordon masterfully sketches her famous leads — Weil is brilliant but gauche; Mann is primly eloquent — but the real and more full-bodied stars of the show are their admirers, Gordon’s invented creations, whose lives since meeting their heroes have taken many a dramatic turn.
The other two novellas are shorn of celebrity and end up being all the better for it. In the eponymous tale, Jocelyn answers the door to Johnny, her Irish, yarn-spinning first husband whom she hasn’t seen in 50 years. The last and longest novella, “Fine Arts,” tracks Theresa’s doctoral study stint in Italy — a trip to research a 15th-century sculptor and to get over the disastrous fling with her married adviser. Jocelyn’s tale includes flashbacks to carefree days in Dublin. Theresa’s showcases the healing power of la dolce vita. Both illustrate how serenity is shattered by “the clanging ring tone of the end of love.”
As one novella gives way to another we begin to recognize if not a pattern, then at least unifying links. These are narratives full of lost and found lovers, fleeting backward glances and lingering reminiscences, and characters taking stock of their lives after bouts of tumult or loneliness. The novellas complement each other and at the same time dovetail into Gordon’s previous work: Good Catholic girl Theresa has a forebear in Gordon’s 1978 debut, “Final Payments,” and the Italian setting and various emotional reunions and remembrances are redolent of her more recent work, “The Love of My Youth” (2011).
Gordon reprises old themes and truths and gives them a new lease on life by examining them from different angles. The result is that “The Liar’s Wife” feels both warmly familiar and arrestingly original.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh.