There Your Heart Lies, by Mary Gordon

The heart of Marian Taylor, this novel’s heroine, lies in Spain. And that is what drew me to this 2017 novel. Because my heart lies there as well. But also being a fan of author Mary Gordon, I was doubly drawn to this novel.

This is the story of a 19-year old girl who flees her Irish Catholic family in 1937 to become a volunteer nurse for the Republican forces. While there, she falls in love and has a son, but is never accepted by her husband’s family after he tragically dies. And, as in much of Gordon’s work, there is a parallel story, the story of her granddaughter Amelia in the first decade of the 21st century. Marian is now dying, and Amelia wants to understand her Nene better, especially what she never talks about, those years in Spain.

And so, this novel, this tender novel, moves back and forth between Marion’s life in Spain of the 1930s and Amelia’s conversations with her grandmother in Rhode Island in 2009. Until, Amelia decides herself to go to Spain to resolve Nene’s differences with the son she had left behind.

As a girl, Marian rebelled against the faith of her deeply conservative Catholic family. She loved especially her brother Johnny, but was distraught when he was exposed as a homosexual and committed by his shamed Catholic parents to a hospital— whereupon, rather than suffer shock treatments, he kills himself. Still more distraught, Marian wants nothing to do with her family, and flees to Spain. With Johnny’s lover, Russell, a doctor. It is a fake marriage, but their relationship gives the novel its interesting start.

Their story takes off when Marian and Russell arrive in Spain in 1937. Gordon has done her research, and we truly feel we are there. We sense the tension among fatalist Republicans unsure of victory, more tension between anarchists and communists, still more among the hospital staff, and finally tension that prompts Russell to flee the hypocrisy around him.

When Russell returns to the States, Marian is assigned to a new hospital near Valencia, and the novel comes into its own. For Marian falls in love with a local doctor, Ramon Ortiz, and becomes pregnant. However, he contracts sepsis while operating and dies. She is then taken in by his unsympathetic family, whose purpose is to assume control of her son and then indoctrinate him in their own conservative beliefs.

Meanwhile, the novel is shifting between 1937 and 2009. In 2009, concerned about her dying grandmother, Amelia gets Marian to talk about her early family life. For the first time, we see what motivated her to run away to Spain. We get inside her. We see the family conflict that we have heard about, but we now experience it.

The novel alternates between Marion’s memories of growing up and the years in Spain, when she has the baby and Ortiz’ mother, Pilar, turns the town against her. The young mother was miserable—for seven years. Until, in an ironic stroke of luck, she falls and breaks her leg. For she then meets her half-Irish saviors, a woman doctor and her brother, a priest.

Now Gordon returns to the Spain of 1946, when Marian is recovering from her broken leg. The doctor, Isabel, and the brother, Tomas, help to restore Marian’s belief in humanity after her cruel treatment by the Ortiz family. And then, luckily, Marian falls in love again, with Theo, a visiting American artist who will help her escape back to the States.

The priest, Thomas, plays an interesting role in this novel. He is a sympathetic priest. Yes, he has committed one outrageous act of self-mutilization, but this only makes him more human. What is interesting is that Marian takes to him, even if she has lost her faith. Moreover, this novel, permeated by “bad” Catholics, from Marian’s parents to Franco’s followers, portrays him as a good person. It is Gordon, I think, acknowledging that Catholics can be bad or good depending on their sense of humanity rather than how they practice their faith. This sensitivity also foreshadows a later discussion about whether heaven exists, and whether Marian and Amelia will one day meet again. The Catholic perspective remains in Gordon’s purview.

But to return toTheo. He represents the one weakness in this book. We get to know him only briefly. And we learn even less about Naomi, his and Marian’s child and the mother of Amelia. Why? Because, I presume, this is the story of Marian and her granddaughter. But it does leave a hole in this family story. A full generation wide.

Just as the final chapter also leaves a gap. For Amelia returns to Spain, intent on bringing Marian and her Spanish child back together. Thus, creating a full circle. It is a marvelous, atmospheric passage, blending a modern impression and a distant past. But the outcome changes the entire atmosphere of this passage. And changes Amelia as well. Too much and too quickly. As Gordon makes this moment the key to Amelia’s future life.

Yes, there will be a final tender meeting between the dying Marian and the new Amelia, which is right for a novel that begins with the focus on Marian and ends with the focus on Amelia. But Amelia’s new view of life has not been given space to breathe. She now understands herself, she says. She can say yes and no to others. But will she, as she faces new challenges? We hear her declaration, but we do not see her in action. Is she now too hard-hearted? No, you say. For she believes in the afterlife. Well, yes…the possibility.

At least this novel is not hard-hearted. Yes, its story is pervaded by the hard-heartedness of the Catholic faith. But its main characters, minus Pilar, think and act according to the laws of charity. They balance the evils of humanity with the good. They seek to understand and to love other human beings. And these are precepts that Jesus taught, precepts that the Catholic Church still preaches. That Gordon has not forgotten.

And yet I am curious. Why does she otherwise offer such a negative view of the Catholic Church? Only because it fits her story? No, I shouldn’t say that, because Gordon’s novels often consider how the Church’s values conflict with our humanity. It is more, I think, that Gordon likes to develop her stories through contrast. Another type of contrast she uses, as here, is to create a relationship between two characters, such as Marian and Amelia, in order to dramatize the human condition. And again it works. (June, 2018)

The Love of My Youth, by Mary Gordon

This 2011 work begins as a wonderful novel. Miranda and Adam, now close to sixty, were lovers forty years ago. Then they separated, marrying others and raising children. Now, both are visiting Rome and have been brought back together by a friend, whereupon they immediately relate to one another. And to their past together.

The wonder comes from their mutual doubt, their mutual worry. Can they cross together that forty-year chasm? Are they even now being disloyal to their current spouses? Can they get over the hurt that their separation caused? Where should this re-discovered relationship now go? What of the integrity they have stood for all their lives?

Simultaneously, they are living today, and they are living forty years ago, living one life externally and one life internally. It is a wonderful juxtaposition, caught by an author who is mature herself and understands exactly how one’s mind and one’s emotions might react to such circumstances. Some readers might even be intrigued by another question: will they or won’t they? The reader who knows Mary Gordon, however, will expect something more.

Then the novel shifts gears. Adam persuades Miranda to meet with him for an hour or two every day so he can show her, and help her better appreciate, the sights of Rome, a city with its own memorable past. It is really, of course, because he is still intrigued by her; and, despite each of their current marriages, he wishes to explore the possibilities that have arisen from their meeting.

Whereupon, each time this couple meets, they banter about Rome’s history and art and the people they encounter on the street, and the reader receives mini-portraits of moments in Rome’s past. It is continually interesting banter, even as the couple deliberately avoids any personal conversation about their own past, not least because of their own existing marriages. And yet…that past is always in the air. But the result, even so, is a lack of drama. Because their relationship never advances, because they seek to avoid at all costs what in today’s literary world might seem to be an inevitable outcome.

Meanwhile, author Gordon interrupts the daily Roman tour to flash back to the past when Adam and Miranda were lovers. Not how they became lovers, because there was no drama there, simply an immediate realization by both. Instead, it is how they accommodated their love to each other’s careers, his as a promising student pianist that required long hours of private study and hers as an advocate for social causes that required being with people, whether working for the World Health Organization, especially in India, or for Planned Parenthood while living with Adam in Boston.

And again, there is little drama in the past, for their love enables them to adapt to each other’s needs. And while there are continual reminders that they will eventually separate, there are few clues regarding why. So we continue to absorb this beautifully told tale, wondering what will happen in Rome today, wondering how this author will resolve their situation, and also wondering what could have so abruptly torn them apart, could have destroyed that deep, passionate love forty years ago.

And we do find out, of course. The final flashback reveals why they separated. It is well-told, but a bit melodramatic, and also rather ordinary, as we learn why Miranda has never wanted to voice the name Beverly. Then we return to Rome, and Adam and Miranda decide where to go from here in a moment of mutual introspection that is entirely in character. Indeed, there is a beautiful, suggestive ending in the penultimate chapter, and one wonders why this novel still goes on. Did the publisher, the editor, the author, find it too inconclusive? I did not. But that appears to be the case, for the final chapter makes absolutely clear their future relationship.

What has begun as a highly promising novel of two married people, now quite mature and encountering their first love of long ago, turns into merely a successful work of former lovers touring Rome. It is a tender work, and vergers on being emotionally moving. It is satisfying as well, but it is not a great work. Perhaps because the couple spends too much time avoiding issues, avoiding whether they are still open to love, and avoiding a discussion of the responsibility for their separation. The latter, perhaps, because it would negate the suspense of the reader finding out why. For a story that is occurring so deeply inside these characters, in fact, this novel is much too concerned with surface events.

In her Times, review, however, Liesl Schillinger suggests an appropriate metaphor for their tour through the streets of Rome. She compares the centuries-old stone architecture of that city with the “entombed emotions” of Miranda, “as she retraces old ground with the man who hurt her more deeply that any man could hurt her thereafter.”

One should note that this begins as Adam’s story, as he establishes his pursuit. Because, we later learn, he has felt a sense of guilt for their youthful break-up. But then, this becomes more of Miranda’s tale, reflecting her viewpoint, as is perhaps natural for a female author. But despite this propensity, at key moments Gordon delves with equal insight into Adam’s heart and mind, into his doubts about right and wrong, both then and now, and his sensitive reserve. With the end result being a finely balanced presentation of this mutual revisiting of the past—a result that is fully satisfying, even as one is aware of its missed potential. This would perhaps entail a deeper exploration of their consciences.

Mary Gordon’s novels will always be on my reading list. And while there was no need for the characters’ spiritual life in this tale, it might nevertheless have helped here, and its return to her work would revive my interest even more. (April, 2015)