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 So write ye merry unpublished and know that all those rules used to reject your manuscript will not matter once you reach the right audience, once you hit the right formula.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.