The four novellas that make up Mary Gordon’s “The Liar’s Wife” would seem to have little in common. Two are largely historical — one looking back on a Midwestern 1930s youth, another taking place in 1942 New York — while the protagonists in the two contemporary narratives are separated in age by approximately 50 years. What the four stories share is a certain temperament, a sense that the narrators have somehow failed or disappointed their mentors and that they are little, timid creatures.
Regret runs throughout this collection. The opening novella, “The Liar’s Wife,” sets this theme up early when a well-off Connecticut matron is surprised by a visit from her profligate first husband. As the now 72-year-old Jocelyn listens to an ailing Johnny spin his stories, she relives the initial attraction as well as the pain of her rapid disillusionment. Despite his flaws, which by the time of the story have marked him with illness and poverty, she is left feeling like their divorce — rather than the hasty marriage — was her failure, the first of many compromises in a long and seemingly successful life.
Faith, another familiar Gordon theme, surfaces in the second novella, “Simone Weil in New York,” when a young mother is confronted by the French philosopher, who had been her teacher in France. The protagonist, Genevieve, is Jewish, as was the real Weil (and Gordon’s father, before he converted to Catholicism). But although their shared faith is the reason both fled Europe, it does not bind them. As Genevieve, now Jenny, remembers her youth, the fictionalized Weil tries to reassert her role as a mentor. But her advice — about love, marriage, and religion — is not only unwelcome, it is offensive. To Jenny, Weil is a “force from whose field she had believed she had long ago freed herself,” but from whom — because of their shared history — “[s]he can’t run.”
“Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana,” combining past and present, is the most satisfying of the four novellas. Now 90, the narrator, Bill, looks back on a critical year in high school. Troubled by his emerging sexuality and yet chosen, perhaps because of his youthful beauty, to meet the German author, he also finds himself facing death and his own limitations. “I was not great,” he recalls, “but only the best of the mediocrities available.” It’s a crucial coming of age, and in Gordon’s hands, the older Bill is able to look back with gentle forbearance.
Much less satisfying is “Fine Arts.” Although this final selection begins by dealing directly with the author’s avowed Catholicism, it veers from its initial course into fantasy. As the story opens, hard-working and unworldly Theresa has been cast off by her married lover, and her complicated feelings about her faith, guilt, and the art she loves are the most interesting parts of this story. “You could weep freely in a dark church; this was one of its last public functions,” she thinks. Theresa has come to Europe to study art, and, of course, finds herself — and then a wealthy benefactor. The way her tale spins out is more fairy tale than Henry James, impossible and strangely vague.
That’s a rare lapse for Gordon, who excels at the kind of minute observations that make her characters real. Even Theresa’s ambivalence about her happy ending fails to satisfy: The validity of the emotion is undercut by the sketchiness of the setup.
More troubling, however, is the cool tone that pervades these stories. Gordon’s skills are formidable; her writing, careful and exact. But she is not a sympathetic author, and while we may recognize the characters she depicts with her jewel-cutter’s precision, they do not become people we like, or with whom we want to share our time.