The award-winning author at her storytelling best: four compelling novellas of Americans in Europe and Europeans in America.
In these absorbing and exquisitely made novellas of relationships at home and abroad, both historical and contemporary, we meet the ferocious Simone Weil during her final days as a transplant to New York City; a vulnerable American grad student who escapes to Italy after her first, compromising love affair; the charming Irish liar of the title story, who gets more out of life than most of us; and Thomas Mann, opening the heart of a high-school kid in the Midwest. These narratives dazzle on the surface with beautifully rendered settings and vistas, and dig deep psychologically. At every turn, Mary Gordon reveals in her characters’ interactions those crucial flashes of understanding that change lives forever. So richly developed it’s hard to believe they fit into novella-size packages, these tales carry us away both as individual stories and as a larger experience of Gordon’s literary mastery and human sympathy.
from "The Liar's Wife":
She was suddenly struck at the oddness: in the years that had gone by, she had rarely thought of Johnny.
How could it be that you had married someone, loved someone, and then never thought about them?
And now, after all this time, he was here. Of course she’d have to let him in the house.
But how would she say this in a way that was neither unwelcoming nor encouraging of too much—what? Intimacy? Friendship? Time? What could she say? “Bring him in. I’ll see him now. I’m ready.” What she decided to say was not quite true, but it had the virtue of seeming inoffensive.
“I’d like to see him. Of course I would.”
The woman reached into the back pocket of her jeans. She took out a lime green cell phone and pressed one key.
“It seems you’re as welcome as the flowers in May, as one of your old songs goes,” she said.
She stood on the porch, beckoning Johnny in, as if it were her house, as if she were the hostess. Jocelyn stood behind her, still in the living room.
The door of the truck opened. The driver’s door. He walked towards the house.
It was too dark for her to make out features, but even in this light his walk was familiar to her, that mix, that had once so aroused her, of confidence and hesitation, born of the sense that was nearly but not quite absolute: everyone would be glad to see him. And there was no need to thrust or push or even rush to make his presence felt. He was still thin; and although you heard that in age people got shorter, she hadn’t noticed it yet in her friends, and she didn’t see it in him. He had all his hair, and it hadn’t seemed to turn gray; it was still blond, golden even. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt whose inscription she couldn’t read . . . did it match the woman’s? Like her, he wore cowboy boots. The buckle of his belt was elaborate, but Jocelyn couldn’t read the lettering. Why was he trying to pass himself off as a cowboy? She remembered that he’d loved American Westerns, loved the part of America that she felt no connection to, that slightly embarrassed her. Elvis, for example. He was crazy about Elvis, whom she considered at best mildly mortifying, at worst a bore.
From this distance, he appeared to be much younger than she knew he was. She saw that he had his right hand in his pocket, and she knew what he was doing; playing with a coin, turning it up and down. It was what he did when he was nervous, and of course, he would be nervous seeing her.
He jumped up the three porch stairs—still, she thought, the master of the boyish gesture.
“Well, Jossie, if you’re not a sight for sore eyes. You haven’t changed a bit.”
And you’re still a liar, she wanted to say, surprised at her own bitterness.
“Won’t you sit down,” she said, indicating the couch to them, displeased at her own diction.
The woman sat down and patted the chintz fabric of the couch. “Johnny was as nervous as a cat that you wouldn’t want to see him. I said, ‘Johnny if she don’t want to see you we just start up the truck and just take off, like we never been here.’ But he says to me, ‘Linnet my love,’ he calls me that, I think it’s the Irish way, ‘Linnet my love,’ he says to me, ‘you go in first, to pave the way.’ I said to him, ‘For Lord’s sake, Johnny, after all this time there’s bound to be no hard feelings.’ ”
Hard feelings. Jocelyn thought. No hard feelings. What would be the opposite of hard feelings? Soft feelings. The truth is, Linnet my love, she wanted to say, I have no feelings at all.
She felt ashamed at her own nullity of heart. In place of sadness or regret there was simple curiosity. Johnny Shaughnessy was seventy-five. He’d been twenty-five when she’d last seen him. In her mind, he was still twenty-five, and Johnny had always been much more boy than man. And so, like some joke speeded-up film, the boy in her mind was the old man in her living room.
“It means the world to him,” Linnet said. “I can tell you that for sure.”
Johnny seemed to want to let Linnet talk. He was looking down at the carpet, as if the pattern were a code he might, with luck, break.
“Linnet,” she said. “That’s a lovely name. Unusual.”
“My father was Canadian.”
She wondered what that had to do with anything. She tried to remember what a linnet looked like, but she was pretty sure it was a small bird, rather delicate. But there was nothing delicate about this woman, with her tortured hair, her oversized breasts, her Born to Be Wild T-shirt, her long red nails. The stench of cigarette smoke clung to her. Jocelyn wondered if her breasts were real. It seemed unlikely, given the smallness of the woman’s frame. But what did it matter if she’d had—a phrase Jocelyn loathed—a boob job? She wouldn’t be spending enough time with her for it to matter one way or another. A few minutes, half an hour perhaps. Then she’d be gone from Jocelyn’s life, as quickly and easily as she’d entered it. Taking Johnny with her. Quickly and for good.
“You’re probably surprised to see an old Frito-Lay’s truck parked in front of your house, on your nice street. But it’s our job. It’s a pretty common job for senior citizens. Pretty common for retirees trying to supplement a pension. Cross-country hauling, I mean to say. Of course we’re not exactly retirees. A musician never retires. For a musician, retirement and death are the same word. And the Lord knows neither of us have a pension.”
“You’re still playing and singing, Johnny?” Jocelyn asked, glad to think of something to say.
“We both do, Jossie,” Johnny said. “We call ourselves Dixie and Dub.”
“On account of he’s from Dublin and I’m from Tennessee.”
“Oh, yes I see,” she said, wanting to add, You were better than that when I knew you.
It was the fourteenth of July, 1962, the day she met him. She remembered it was Bastille Day.
He had come into their lives because her father had met him on the train. His usual train, the 5:38. Johnny had sat down next to him, out of breath, having only just made the all-aboard. She always imagined a conductor shouting “All aboard” and Johnny running down the track, jumping onto the train at the last minute. But she wasn’t really sure if anyone shouted “All aboard” on suburban commuter trains.
Johnny had engaged her father in conversation. Had her father been reluctant, putting his face in his New York Times to seem discouraging? But no shield could withstand the thrusts of Johnny Shaughnessy when he was determined to make contact. Of course her father had been charmed. Perhaps it was his voice, the beautiful Irish cadences, making you feel you’d never heard English spoken properly before. Her father had been seduced. Johnny was a seducer. His seduction of her was in a way the least spectacular of the many she’d observed. He had seduced her, but it had been he who’d been abandoned. There was a category “seducer,” but none for the abandoner. That is who she had been.
Excerpted from The Liar's Wife by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 2014 by Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Mary Gordon is the author of seven novels, including Final Payments, Pearl, and The Love of My Youth; six works of nonfiction, including the memoirs The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother; and three collections of fiction, including The Stories of Mary Gordon, which was awarded the Story Prize. She has received many other honors, including a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.
1. Why the form of the four novellas? What does this format allow you to do that another format might not? Are there any limitations?
I like the form because it combines the intensity of a short story, the focus on a single event, moment, turning point, allows for space for exploration, but doesn’t require the creation of a whole world, which a novel does. I have been very drawn to great writers using the form: William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Eudora Welty’s June Recital, Turgenev’s First Love.
2. The protagonists in THE LIAR’S WIFE all seem to be shaped in some way by their complex relationships with their mothers. It is as if remembering their mothers is their portal to the past, opening them up to feeling and allowing them to look at their own lives in a new light. These characters seem to be deeply, almost compulsively attached to their mothers, seeing them as the embodiment of perfection, and what is right, valuing their sacrifices, yet simultaneously striving to live their own separate lives. How do these mother-child relationships define your characters?
I have noted that mothers get rather a bad rap in literature, and I wanted to explore the tremendous force and power mothers have, and the limitations of understanding that a child has of her or his mother; an adult child is always a child in relation to the mother.
3. The theme of knowledge and intelligence as both a gift yet also a burden comes up throughout your stories. Can you comment on the repeated intertwining of intelligence and suffering?
Perhaps I would substitute the word consciousness for intelligence, a sense that I have that awareness of the world inevitably leads to an awareness of the suffering involved in living. What Virginia Woolf says as the danger “Of living life for even one day.” Humans do an enormous amount to muffle or obscure the knowledge and implications of suffering; in THE LIAR’S WIFE I wanted to turn the question on its head, and ask if increased consciousness automatically means increased life, or richness of life.
4. A few of your stories allude to World War II and the deep suffering of the Jewish people. There is a dichotomy between this suffering in Europe and the events of daily life in some of your stories. It is particularly evident even in the title of one of your novellas, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Though the horrors of World War II occurred far away from places such as New York City or Gary, Indiana, your characters are still deeply affected. What effects does the displacement of such suffering have on your characters?
One of the great separations between Americans and Europeans is that we have not experienced war on our own soil. This has allowed for a particular kind of American innocence, which my character Bill is forced to relinquish when he meets Thomas Mann and later when he is involved in the War itself. Once again, I am dealing with questions of consciousness and its costs.
5. In each of your novellas, the protagonist looks back on momentous experiences from their childhoods that have allowed them to grow and come of age. How do your writing techniques of prolepsis and analepsis add to your stories as a whole? What other writing techniques do you employ to allow for this spanning of time to work so well in a shorter piece?
I always want to anchor “momentous experiences” in the physical world, to avoid vagueness and abstraction, to root memory in the lived life of the body. In a shorter piece, one has to explore the mystery of the instantaneous leaps in time our mind makes while our bodies remain fixed in space.
6. Many of your stories discuss characters that travel to different parts of the world and change in some way. What is the importance of travel for your characters and in what ways do their experiences in new places leave them altered?
For Jocelyn and Theresa, travel is both an adventure and a challenge, uprooting them from what they both consider are too comfortable, too small contexts, catapulting them into a larger world, but also reinforcing and clarifying their own identities, helping them to understand more fully who they really are by confronting their sense of difference from the new place.
7. There seems to be a continuous theme of teachers and students throughout this collection, which looks at the complex relationships between old world teachers and new world students. Having been a teacher yourself, what is the importance of this theme and what can we learn from it?
I am very interested in the complex, rather fragile, intense relationship between teachers and students, how this must grow and develop if it is going to be fruitful rather than stultifying as the student grows and matures. Good teachers know how to impart knowledge and to leave room for the student to go in her own direction, even go beyond the teacher. And we encounter teachers in surprising places, not just the formal classroom.
1. What links the four novellas? Are there any themes that are present in all four? Why is The Liar’s Wife used as the title of the collection?
2. Why do you think the author has set two novellas in the past and two in contemporary time, bookending the collection with the contemporary pieces and placing the two historical stories in the middle?
3. Each of the four protagonists learns something important from pivotal moments that shed understanding on their lives and affect their futures. For each novella, what is this moment? And what has the main character learned?
4. What is the significance of lying and performing in “The Liar’s Wife”? How are lying and performing connected? And how are they connected to Johnny’s love of language and stories?
5. What does it signify that Jocelyn can’t say “I love life” as Johnny can?
6. How does Jocelyn know that Johnny isn’t good for her and why? Looking back now on her life, do you think she made a good decision to leave him?
7. What is the importance and meaning of the monologue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest with which Johnny ends all of his sets? What does it say about him and the way he lives his life?
8. What is the importance of house and home for all four of the protagonists? What does home mean for each? In the first novella, why will Jocelyn never sell the house?
9. What is the role of science in these novellas? Jocelyn is a scientific technician who works in a lab. Why doesn’t she pursue science further? Why is she interested in mosquitoes, and what does this say about her personality?
10. How does Simone Weil play into Genevieve’s life? And how does this role change as time passes and the war starts, with their being on different continents? How does time and space affect their relationship?
11. What is the importance of mothers in “Simone Weil in New York,” both Genevieve’s mother and Simone’s mother, as well as Genevieve herself as a new mother?
12. Why do Simone and Genevieve’s brother have such a bond?
13. Describe the story of the intellectual in the factory. Why does the author include this story?
14. What is the importance of religion, and the role of God, in the second novella?
15. What role does World War II play in the second and third novellas?
16. What are the trans-Atlantic (Old World–New World; Europe–United States) interactions and differences expressed in these novellas? Contrast Europe and America in the 1940s as set in the third novella. What does America represent?
17. Three of the novellas are told in the third person, while “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” is told in the first person. Why do you think the author has decided to use a first-person male narrator to tell the story in this novella? How does this affect our reading?
18. How does Thomas Mann change the life of the high school boy? What does he symbolize for the boy when his brother’s friend is killed?
19. The narrator contrasts Mann with his mother: “What I came to understand was: Thomas Mann was great. Thomas Mann had greatness. And my mother did not” (p. 159). Why?
20. Describe Theresa’s various teachers, from the nuns of her high school to her art history professor to Gregory Allard. What does she learn from each of them?
21. What is the importance of great teachers in the other novellas? Who are the teachers? Are they the people we expect to be our teachers?
22. Had you previously heard of the fifteenth-century sculptor Matteo Civitali? What do you think of his art? Does reading “Fine Arts” change your opinion of him or introduce you to his work?
23. Why does Theresa commit an uncharacteristic act of vandalism near the end of “Fine Arts”? How does it change her life?
24. What is Theresa’s relationship with the nuns at her high school? What do they represent for her, and what do they do for her ultimately?
25. All of the stories concern the power of great literature and words and/or art. What do you think the author is saying about the importance of art and literature in our lives? In our histories?