Cue flashback. And we’re transported to 1972, to a girls’ school in Rhode Island, where we take up with a young art teacher named Agnes, whom we follow through much of her long life and most of the book. We’re a very long way from the opening world of staged encounters and plastic surfaces summed up in Quin Archer’s manufactured appearance — “her skin’s firm, wrinkleless texture . . . her signature hair: silver spikes, baffling speculations about her real age . . . her signature orange lipstick.”
Only Quin’s small eyes, which she has made “a kind of trademark, emphasizing them with lines of thick black kohl,” hint at where she figures in Agnes’s story — when we meet Heidi Stolz, a student whose small eyes are made much of. Also, Agnes is the only one we know of who has done any harm, though there the equation gets tricky — because what Agnes has done, and what she pays for all her life, in a sense, before being confronted by Heidi/Quin nearly 50 years later, is a sin of omission whose enormity only the two of them can see.
Of all the students, Heidi is “the least obviously lovable, certainly the least generous, the cruelest, the most begrudging,” and perhaps because of this, Agnes makes a special effort with her. Even more moving, more demanding of Agnes’s kind attention? Heidi is ugly. Ugliness torments Agnes. The art teacher “had spoken to her students about beauty, the importance of beauty, its protection from the ugliness of the world, which was a form of death.”
Heidi’s ugliness defines her, and it makes her susceptible to the blandishments of a seemingly sophisticated stranger in a museum, who takes her to his apartment, gives her too much to drink and rapes her. And it is Agnes’s response, when she’s roused from sleep and told about this by a desperate Heidi, that haunts both of them to the end: “How could you have let that happen?”
Heidi runs away, and Agnes, driven by guilt, does, too — to Italy, where a whole other novel unfolds: the story of Agnes’s marriage, motherhood and career as a restorer of wooden sculptures. This is recognizable territory for Mary Gordon, who is expert at creating characters of clear moral, intellectual and what might be called aesthetic goodness — then testing that goodness in a clarifying, often life-altering way. In some ways, Gordon’s familiar conception of the novel is the real character being tested in “Payback,” as a sensibility attuned to the nuances of truth and beauty finds itself in the harsh, ugly light of the reality TV show that our world is inexorably becoming.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”
By Mary Gordon
Pantheon. 338 pp. $27.95