Pearl by Mary Gordon

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Pearl

Author: Mary Gordon

Type of Work: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I have no idea where I initially heard about this book. Likely a radio program back when I worked in cubicle hell and listened to public radio on a constant stream. Like many inveterate bibliophiles, I will hear about a book that I think sounds interesting and write it down on a master list of books I wish to read. Sometimes I write down where I heard about it, sometimes I forget. I forgot on this one, but I know that if I wrote it on the list, I was impressed enough that even if I have forgotten the recommendation source, I will still want to read it. And such was the case with Pearl. I saw it on my list and bought it when I had the chance.

Availability: Published by Anchor Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Okay, aspiring writers who may read this, please know this novel stands in violent contradiction to all the writing standards students have beaten into their heads. This novel is rife with telling and not showing, which is not problematic to me, per se. We spend a lot of time in the heads of the characters in Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires and the passivity of the experience actually made me feel very close to the protagonist. Sometimes, with friends, you can loll about, talking and feel as if you have done something. But this is not the case with Pearl. The telling is alienating. Pearl also has an often condescending omniscient narrator, forcing the reader to experience the book in the manner Gordon sees fit, wedging the reader into a stiff “we” formation that spoils much of the narrative. Pearl uses nothing approaching word conservation, overstating, restating, then overstating points yet again with the end result being that the reader’s mind begins to wander.

Many of some of the most acclaimed writers break every writing rule and god bless them because rules are just to get people started, a means of learning. So write ye merry unpublished and know that all those rules used to reject your manuscript will not matter once you reach the right audience, once you hit the right formula. For much can be forgiven if a book is good enough in the right places and Pearl was just good enough when Pearl was its actual focus. But Pearl was not focused on enough, sadly, for me to like this book very much. (A book can also be forgiven if the intelligentsia has decided that writer is a worthy writer no matter what but best not to get too bogged down in details like that.)

Here is Pearl‘s plot synopsis: Pearl, the daughter of an areligious woman, whose Jewish father converted to Catholicism, and a Cambodian freedom fighter who died without her ever knowing him, goes to Ireland to study the Irish language. She is 20, very naive, has spent her life in her mother’s shadow, and becomes involved with people associated with the IRA. A misjudged overreaction on her part and on the part of another woman lead Pearl to think she is responsible for a teenage boy’s death.

Her response is to starve herself for six weeks, deprive herself of water for 4 days, and then chain herself to a post on the American Embassy in Ireland in witness to what she calls “the will to harm.” She wants for her death to be the witness to the boy’s death. But Pearl miscalculates and does not die as quickly as she thought she would and is eventually overpowered and taken to the hospital. Her mother and her mother’s life long friend Joseph hasten to Ireland to be by Pearl’s side. Joseph was raised with Pearl’s mother Maria. His mother was the family maid and Joseph went on to run Maria’s father’s business. The relationships in this novel are fraught with endless difficulty, as they so often are in novels and in real life, but the relationships are believable and overall, the book works on that level.

The best parts for me were when Pearl was still so weak from hunger because in those scenes, the action and thought were more immediate. There was far less dithering in the narrative. The other characters did not mean as much to me and their presence in the book do not show as clearly how Pearl came to be Pearl as one would hope. Maria, a former 1960s radical, is a strident, difficult woman used to getting her way, but as Gordon shows, she is also a woman you want in your corner when you are sick, scared or downtrodden. Maria is a loud mouth pain in the ass but mostly she means well. Joseph is a resentful, but loving man, a man whose destiny in life has been thwarted because of his role as Maria’s financial caretaker, ensuring she and Pearl have enough money in life, rather than pursuing the work that would have made him happy. He has Maria’s number, though she does not have his, and he is overly sensitive and at times, a bit crazed.

Pearl is not her mother and her life has been shaped almost exclusively by the force of her mother’s will. She is shy, retiring, and easily hurt. But she is kind and giving, too. She has a hard time not seeing the world through her mother’s eyes, down to what her mother would think of her new Irish boyfriend. She engages in avoidance, encouraging Maria and Joseph to visit her elsewhere in Europe rather than have Maria criticize her life in Ireland.

Pearl makes friends with a lower-middle class Irish woman with a dyslexic, slightly mentally subnormal teenage son who is the nephew of an IRA hero. Pearl, quiet and accepting of the boy’s differences, helps him learn to read and becomes fast friends with his mother. However, when the boy is used in a terrible scheme to annoy the Irish police, Pearl unleashes anger on him and when the boy later dies in an unrelated accident, Pearl feels to blame and the boy’s mother, in a moment of anguished grief, also blames her. Had this novel been solely about Pearl and her search for redemption in a world that often crushes the weak without even meaning to, I would have had a far different, much more positive experience. There is too much Maria, too much Joseph, too much of even the dead boy’s father. It is interesting that Pearl is overshadowed in the novel the way she is in her life. I know far, far more about Maria than Pearl and of the two, Pearl is infinitely more interesting. Perhaps that was part of Gordon’s point – a girl who had been voiceless most of her life only found a voice via self-destruction and the presence of all those people, all those crushing, peripheral people, forced her hand to self-violence.

I don’t think so, however. Had the point of all the non-Pearl focus been to show how much she had been stifled, so much of their own stories in such depth would not have been needed. No, their stories were as important as Pearl’s to Gordon, though ultimately, they did little to show how Pearl became the young woman she became.

Though that may be an overstatement on my part, or an inaccuracy, because I don’t think Pearl’s method of self-destruction in the face of the will to harm was as simple as it may seem initially. Much is spoken of in the novel about the IRA’s starvation as protest attempts, and the successful starvation of Bobby Sands and how he was sainted in certain Irish circles. So of course Pearl was exposed to the idea of starvation as protest.

But she also never was able to express herself verbally – all her interest in language aside – because of her overbearing mother. She had been forced to witness all sorts of scenes that deeply affected her because her mother insisted that Pearl should have a real life and not the sheltered life Maria experienced. Pearl was so accustomed to being quiet that when she finally spoke out and her words did what she perceived as harm, she set out to speak her final protest non-verbally.

While there is a doctor who is an eating disorder expert in the book who helps Pearl, it is repeatedly denied that Pearl has any sort of eating disorder. But with the heavy Catholicism in the book, the talk of saints, it made me wonder how much the areligious Maria had to do with her daughter’s desire to become pure, to be of no flesh at all. History is full of examples of Christian martyrs who starved themselves to death, fasting nuns, the denial of the flesh. Pearl has deep religion in her bones even if her mother did not permit it to be practiced in her home. I think Gordon was trying to tell us that religion is always with us, perhaps on even a subconscious level, and that Pearl absorbed some of the Catholic need to atone despite her mother’s best efforts to raise her outside the realm of such influences. It gives the modern disease of anorexia nervosa an interesting perspective.

Pearl was starving to be a witness to the will to harm but she was also starving to purify herself, to purge herself of the sin she thinks she had committed, and when her sins are forgiven by the boy’s mother, she begins to get well.

So it is clear, I think, that had the book had more Pearl and far less Maria and Joseph, I would have been happier. However, even had Pearl been the focus, it may not have mattered. Gordon’s writing style killed my desire to read more with each page, though I soldiered through because that is what I do. I’ve only stopped and refused to continue to read one book in about a decade. Pearl was not that egregious. It is simply overwhelming, some of the book, and not in a thought-provoking, interesting way. Parts are so tiresome that soldier is the only real word I can come up with to explain what it takes to read large chunks of this book.

Take, for example, this interminable passage, wherein Joseph is disgusted by what he perceives to be Maria’s gluttony and he storms out of the restaurant where they are eating (he is also deeply disturbed by the pinkish lighting in the room – yes, the pinkish lighting). Maria sits and dithers and dithers over whether or not she should eat the rest of her food, with a bonus appearance of the condescending narrator, instructing the reader on how to digest this passage (pun not intended but not repudiated). The bold is my emphasis, because this is very indicative of the punch-in-the-brain, pointless repetition that Gordon engages in throughout most of the book:

She watches him put on his coat and his scarf, one she had bought him as a Christmas gift, as he walks between the tables. He’s accused her of greed. He’s said she’s eaten too much. And Pearl is starving. The irregular oblongs of meat, the ovals of potatoes, less than half consumed, stare up at her reproachfully. She knows she mustn’t follow him, so what should she do? She looks down at her food. The salty smell of the excellent meat rises up to her. Her mouth fills with water. It’s terrible, she knows, how much she wants to finish her dinner. The waitress is waiting to see whether she’ll follow the man out of the restaurant or go on with her meal. She must decide right now. Should the food be taken away or left. Joseph has fled, hungry, into the gloomy night. On an empty stomach, she thinks. Ridiculous, he isn’t crawling on his stomach. She feels helpless, and the churning juices of her own stomach make her feel worse. Something enormous has just happened, and all that is open to her is the decision to of whether or not to eat.

Eat to live, live to eat. What does this have to do with the question of whether or not she should finish her steak? Why does it seem wrong to eat when something enormous has just happened? What is not eating, fasting? Her daughter is fasting. Days of fast and abstinence: requirements loosened by the Second Vatican Council but never given up by her father: always he refrained from meat on Fridays, refused to eat between meals during Lent, ate nothing from Good Friday to Easter Morning. So what did that mean about him? She tries to make the connection between fast and virtue. My father, she thinks, was a man who could give up meat but not the use of the word mine.

You should not be surprised that at this moment, by any definition a moment of crisis in her life, the terms of her childhood come to her: fast, abstinence, sin, virtue. If you had lived in exile, even if you had exiled yourself and had learned or taught yourself a new language, would it be surprising if, in a dire time, the words you grew up speaking were the words that came to your lips? She must decide what to do, right now, and not be calling up the old wrong terms of the past.

And yet they will not go away. The sin of greed, she says to herself. Am I greedy like my father? Joseph has accused her of being greedy: “You are a greedy girl.” She thinks of Marie Kasperman’s face, red, sweating, always reminding her of raw meat. And she is suddenly afraid of the food in front of her. At the same time, her mouth waters from the smell.

His is his mother’s son. And she is her father’s daughter. Nothing can change that. If she could have, she would have destroyed me, Maria thinks. But I held my tongue. For him.

She is right to be proud of that because it was a struggle, holding her tongue, her silence a hard-won victory. She will not say this of herself, but I can say it for her: she did it out of love. Because she loved Joseph’s goodness, his restraint, his doing quietly whatever needed to be done. She loved these things, yes, but it is also possible to say she needed them. They were her buckler and her shield. So she kept silence, difficult for her, and he kept silence, a habit that came to him more easily.

But what was their silence? Was it perhaps only a glass floor laid over a pit? Had they been tiptoeing all their lives on a floor of glass, thinly covered by a silken carpet? And now, it seems, he has stepped hard and broken through.

What should I do? Maria asks herself, because this is the question she always asks.

She tells herself she must grab onto something. She must stop her fall. She must concentrate on what needs to be done. Is it possible that everything is centered in the decision whether or not to eat? The food is here; it is still hot; it is less than a minute since Joseph left the restaurant. She must think of what can make a difference. To think of what that would be to break the fall.

For now, strength is required, strength to wait. To endure her own helplessness. To wait for the boyfriend to get in touch. To wait for the doctor’s word. To wait for her daughter’s word. To wait and see what Joseph will do next.

It’s simple, she says to herself. I should eat. Food brings strength. I require strength. Therefore food.

She cuts into the meat and salts it, dipping into the pyramid of salt she’s already made. She puts the salty meat into her mouth. Chews, swallows, sips wine. Another taste: bitter. Bites into the potatoes….

To eat or not to eat. That is the question. Are you ready to scream yet? Because it goes on. And it went on before I began my quote. Meat. Salt. Food. Guilt. Yes, yes, we got it after the first paragraph but it went on and on and on. It may seem like dirty pool to post such a huge passage I disliked but the entire book is nothing but passages like this: long, pointless, meaningless meanderings with endless repetition that prevented me from knowing as much as I wanted about Pearl, the most interesting character, the catalyst, tender Pearl who starves herself in witness of the will to harm. All of the rest of this sort of verbiage – Joseph wondering how a shopgirl’s armpit will smell, Maria musing on a plane about how she used to be the hot chick people noticed – is too much, and if this passage seems like too much, then this entire novel will seem like too much to you. Things you already know will be repeated over and over, sometimes from a different perspective, but the perspective seldom adds anything new because it is all filtered through the same, overbearing, omniscient narrator who seems to be telling this story as one huge aside.

Gordon is a big name. She is widely respected and her writing is loved by people trained far better than me to cast a critical eye on novels. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that even with the focus on Maria, Joseph and Pearl equally, had much of the unnecessary scenes, endless navel introspection and long, long internal dialogues been quashed by an editor’s hand, this could have been an amazing book. Rather, it is simply a mildly interesting but ultimately very tiresome book that many will find a hard, long slog.

(I add this at the end because it seems, possibly, a terrible nitpick but on two occasions, the hospitalized Pearl is said to have had a tube coming out of her vagina. No. She had a catheter in her urethra that led to a tube. I cannot think of any medical reason a woman suffering from dehydration and starvation should suffer having a tube shoved up her vagina. I have no idea why Pearl, a young woman for whom language is important, would refer to a catheter as a tube in her vagina. Little things like this matter to me. A lot. )

One thought on “Pearl by Mary Gordon

  1. Anita, I enjoyed your review of Pearl very much. I rescued my copy several years ago from the Idaho Youth Ranch thrift store. Pearl cost me less than a dollar, was still in its library binding (a discard from the Garden City, Idaho, library), and was by Mary Gordon. How could I not purchase it?

    I aged it on my bookshelves for a few years before I got around to reading it. Yes, some parts were a slog, and I didn’t much care for the omniscient narrator (God himself?), but I appreciated the twists and turns of Gordon’s thoughts on Catholicism, religion, the Troubles, forgiveness, language, saints and so much more.

    I’m glad you excerpted the passage on Maria’s steak dinner. I loved rereading it. What a brilliant description of sinful carnality, at least as a Catholic would imagine it. I agree with your complaint that the passage is unbearable, but upon analysis, it’s a compelling description that shows as well as describes the tainted physicality of Maria’s eating.

    I also liked your nitpick about the tube that Pearl imagines penetrating her vagina. Of course, Pearl should know that it’s actually in her urethra, but she’s sedated and she might be imagining herself violated sexually by her medical treatment. Or perhaps, as she gets interested in living again, she experiences some hunger for both food and sex. Anyway, I don’t think Gordon made a casual error.

    Born in 1949, Gordon was impacted in her youth first by Vatican II and then by the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The struggle to make moral sense of this turmoil is mostly forgotten today, but I appreciate reading fiction that examines these mid-twentieth century issues.

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