Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife Gives its Characters Compassion and Scrutiny

The characters in these four lovely novellas—mostly Americans in Europe, and vice-versa—are often torn between greatness and happiness, between practical matters and philosophical concerns.

Take, for example, Genevieve, a Frenchwoman living in New York City during WWII in “Simone Weil in New York.” She spends her days caring for her toddler son and her crippled brother, a scholar, as her American husband fights overseas. When she meets the title character, the philosophy teacher she once idolized, she recognizes that domestic responsibilities have overtaken the life of the mind she pursued as a schoolgirl:

She had believed, once, that it was possible to grasp reality through thought. That it was a human being’s most important responsibility: to understand reality through the labor of the mind.
She no longer thinks this way.
What has taken its place?
Something she calls getting on with life. Something she calls, now, living.

Genevieve also feels guilty for being removed from tragedy, and has run into the expectations that can keep women from fully participating in public life (she recalls that during puberty, a girl’s “gallantry…[is] required to transform itself into the smaller compass of maternal ardor”). This is felt throughout The Liar’s Wife, by, among others, an elderly American woman getting in touch with her Irish ex-husband (the title novella), or an American art scholar travelling in Italy after the breakup of an affair (“Fine Arts”).

Gordon’s prose guides the reader through the characters’ thoughts, often step-by-step as in the passage above. The characters feel, and they act upon their feelings, but they examine and question them as well, making this book tender but never sappy.

The collection’s only misstep is at the end of the last novella, “Fine Arts,” where a generous twist of fate makes things a little too easy on the protagonist—she can now avoid the consequences of the choice she made just a few pages earlier. I’m not categorically opposed to happy endings, but at its most useful, literature can show us how people deal with disappointment, not that we can have our cake and eat it too. For the most part, The Liar’s Wife succeeds in that.

–Available from Pantheon on 8/5


2 thoughts on “Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife Gives its Characters Compassion and Scrutiny

  1. timdechene

    “At it’s most useful, literature can show us how people deal with disappointment, not that we can have our cake and eat it too.”

    Man, wish this was a face-to-face, because I have a lot to say on that, and writing seems so static.

    First point: Literature, like every other media out there, is comprised of the stories we tell each other. Sometimes these stories are so close to reality to be identical, and sometimes they are flights of sheer fancy. Yes, literature can show us how people deal with disappointment, but that is not its most useful trait. Nor is it that we can have our cake and eat it too (although how one would eat a cake without having it is beyond me). At its most useful, media allows for communication. Without communication, there is no union. Alliances, Guild, Corporations, none of that happens without communication. There is no society without communication. We would have 7 billion individuals living their lives totally separate from each other, with no way to spread information.

    Second point: Sometimes, reality lets us have our cake and eat it too, because that’s how someone, somewhere, deals with their disappointment.

    1. rnaokiobryan Post author

      “At its most useful” may not have been the right way to put it–providing comfort and escape is very useful, even if it’s not “literary.” “Honest” or “compelling” may have been a better adjective. Stories with deux ex machina endings (like “Fine Arts”) can let people express themselves, but they don’t reach the same depths as something with a more bittersweet ending (like The Sun Also Rises).

      Communication is important, yes, and helping people deal with disappointment falls under that. As always, thanks for your close reading. You’re welcome to respond to this comment as well.


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