Mary Gordon’s characters — male and female, Catholic and not — are hard-wired for guilt and self-doubt. Her generally sympathetic protagonists tend to measure themselves against impossibly high benchmarks and often find themselves wanting. In some of her earlier works, including her 1978 breakout first novel, “Final Payments,” this has frequently led to torturous agonizing.
The worries about worthiness take a less obsessive cast in the four novellas that comprise her sometimes ponderous but ultimately thought-provoking 11th book of fiction, “The Liar’s Wife.” All of these tales address turning points, when her characters’ eyes are opened to a world beyond America and to their personal limitations as well as possibilities. The volume begins and ends with two contemporary tales, each about a young woman venturing abroad and then retreating as she wends her uncertain way toward self-acceptance.
In the strong title novella — just 60 pages long but embracing an entire adulthood — cautious 72-year-old Jocelyn receives a surprise visit from the charming Irishman she impulsively married and then — unmoored by his compulsive lying — quickly deserted in Dublin more than 50 years earlier. When Johnny Shaughnessy — still an affable, incorrigibly mendacious itinerant musician at 75 — shows up driving a Frito-Lay truck with his tacky American girlfriend at his side, Jocelyn is home alone in the large New Canaan, Conn., house she’s guiltily held onto after her mother’s death.
Gordon artfully conveys Jocelyn’s chronic uneasiness and “displeasure at her own snobbishness.” Despite a rich, sheltered life — which has included healthy children, a happy marriage and a job she enjoyed — she has been shadowed by a “sense [that] the worst could always happen” and a timidity that dismays her.
But “The Liar’s Wife” is no mere walk down miserable memory lane. Gordon leads Jocelyn to a hard-earned, much-delayed — and ultimately liberating — epiphany about the importance of her disastrous first marriage: “Without Johnny she wouldn’t have known, really, who she was. Because he had taught her who she was not.”
Mistakes also factor in “Fine Arts,” in which Gordon returns to several favored themes, including the interplay of art, beauty, faith and money, and the tug between naivete and experience.
With echoes of Henry James, it features an innocent abroad, a promising student of medieval and Renaissance art. Theresa Riordan owes much to a series of mentors, including the wonderful Milwaukee nuns who rescued her from a difficult home life. When her graduate advisor at Yale — with whom she’s been having an affair — sends her off to Lucca to explore potential thesis topics, she connects with a rich octogenarian who collects works by the 15th-century sculptor Matteo Civitali. Somewhat overwhelmed by her luck in finding this benefactor, she thinks, “It was too predictable, pathetic in its predictableness. The fatherless girl, the scholarship girl taken under the wing of a rich man old enough to be her grandfather.” In truth, this being a Gordon story, the most predictable aspect is that Theresa questions whether she deserves such good fortune.
The two quasi-historical novellas sandwiched between these contemporary tales are more intellectually than emotionally engaging. Both highlight America’s complacency about fascism during the early years of World War II, and both involve famous refugees from Europe — the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil and the German novelist Thomas Mann.
Gordon chooses to tell her stories from the perspective of two students who came into contact with these well-known figures. In “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana,” her young narrator discovers the moral blind spots of the privileged, sheltered life he leads in a community where racism and anti-Semitism are considered a matter of course. In “Simone Weil in New York,” a young mother struggling solo on the home front is startled by how drastically Weil, her former teacher, still only 33, has aged — and by the demands she places not just on herself but on others. Although well-imagined, these tales offer surprisingly skewed, off-putting portraits of their famous titular heroes: Mann comes across as a cold scold, and Weil as a self-absorbed, self-punitive oddball.
Gordon’s characters are critical thinkers, people whose minds churn constantly with questions, including whether happiness and greatness are incompatible. The contemplative tales collected in “The Liar’s Wife” are the opposite of page-turners: They force us to slow down and reflect. Like the Indiana boy who grows up to become a neurologist, you may find yourself asking periodically, “What would Thomas Mann think?” Which isn’t a bad takeaway, actually.
McAlpin reviews books frequently for The Washington Post.
On Aug. 27 at 7 p.m., Mary Gordon will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
THE LIAR’S WIFE
By Mary Gordon
Pantheon. 288 pp. $25.95