Mary Gordon has spent most of her writing career at the intersection between modern life and the Catholic faith. This comes as no surprise: Her own background...

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by Mary Gordon

Pantheon, 354 pp., $24.95

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Mary Gordon has spent most of her writing career at the intersection between modern life and the Catholic faith. This comes as no surprise: Her own background places her at this same crossroads, struggling to reconcile religious belief with contemporary values. Likewise for the characters in her superb new novel, “Pearl.”

This latest book from a writer who doesn’t want to wear the label “Catholic” is a beautifully realized story of one mother-daughter relationship. But it is even more fully realized as the story of a mother and daughter who are both shaped by the mother’s religious upbringing and her reaction to it.

As “Pearl” opens, 50-year-old Maria Meyers arrives home from Christmas festivities knowing only that her 20-year-old daughter, Pearl, is studying in Ireland. A self-righteous and not very lovable woman, Maria was raised Catholic but long ago rejected her faith and the father who converted to it. Instead, she raised her only child as a politically active single mom with definite progressive views.

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Mary Gordon

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So now comes the phone call from the State Department: Pearl has chained herself to a flagpole in front of the American Embassy in Dublin. She is near death from starvation, intending to die as a witness for peace in Northern Ireland.

The news explodes Maria’s smug world. Here was the daughter she’d told to live for herself. And yet, Maria suddenly realizes, “What she really meant was, Live for yourself, but in a way that I approve of.

“And now, with an urgency she’d never dreamed of: Simply live.”

The story is told by an unidentified narrator — Gordon as counselor — who links mother to daughter and unconscious motivation to conscious action. She probes the mother’s Catholic roots and ties it to the daughter’s blend of female and Christian self-abnegation: Pearl, who feels responsible for the death of a young Irish boy, believes her life has no meaning. Her death, she believes, will be “the vessel of her hope.”

Maria flies to Ireland, joined there by her lifelong friend and Pearl’s surrogate father, Joseph. Joseph, like the New Testament version, appears to play a supporting role in this modern morality play, but he is hardly incidental: In fact, he more than anyone clarifies the central theme of the book.

The deferential Joseph started out that way, growing up with Maria as the son of her father’s housekeeper. He even married her college roommate, Devorah, and dedicated his life to her ambitions to become a professional singer. He now runs Maria’s late father’s business, which juxtaposes capitalism and belief by selling Christian mementos.

While Maria and now Pearl make showy demonstrations of self-sacrifice, Joseph’s life has embodied the concept.

“I’ve observed that some young women seem to have a special impulse toward martyrdom,” the psychiatrist at the hospital tells Maria. Joseph feels Maria’s fear but is more connected to Pearl: “But he doesn’t want her to have to live in a world in which the possibility of dying for something is automatically considered sick or ridiculous. He wants to protect her against their closed pleased faces, the faces of the mother and the doctor, refusing to allow the question ‘Is it always desirable to live?’ ”

This question goes to the heart of the novel, to the core of religious belief. Set against crisis, “Pearl” is both an exploration of mother-daughter dynamics and an examination of faith, the two parts woven together like the parts of a fugue. It is Gordon probing the theology of our lives and writing at her best.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland critic who

also writes as one-half of the Book Babes,

who can be found at, and