By Mary Gordon Pantheon.
320 pp. $26.95
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Marian Taylor, the central figure in Mary Gordon's new novel, rejects her Catholic faith. She enters into a sham marriage with a doctor who had been the lover of her gay brother, who committed suicide in New York. She and the doctor run off with a boatload of anarchists and communists to support the government loyalists fighting the fascist, Catholic-backed rebels in the Spanish Civil War.
Decades later, Marian's granddaughter, Amelia, travels to Spain to find answers about her beloved Meme's adventures. From there, the book toggles between Spain around the civil war and Avondale, R.I., where Marian is dying in 2009.
Gordon frequently writes about Catholic themes, and here her characters are unstinting in their indictment of the church for its support of Francisco Franco. The church was hated, Marian says, "because it had always been on the side of the rich, so that the burning of the churches, the killing of priests, was justified, was celebrated." Marian becomes disillusioned as the conflict tilts inexorably in favor of Franco. She tires of the squabbling among the foreign volunteers, who include hundreds of Americans, known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Marian marries a local surgeon and gives birth to a son. She's taken in by her husband's staunchly Catholic family. Her domineering mother-in-law feeds her a phenobarbital-spiked tonic that leaves her in a stupor for years. The mother-in-law also inculcates Marian's son in a twisted, obsessive brand of Catholicism and turns the boy against his mother. Isolated much of the time, Marian longs to "rip the pictures from the walls: the bleeding Christs, the bleeding saints, the bleeding bulls."
Sadly, this sort of hackneyed depiction of Spanish tastes and manners runs throughout this book, which has little of the graceful writing Gordon has displayed during her distinguished career.The plot has all the makings of a fine tale, but the narrator has the tiresome, pedantic habit of stating the obvious. And Gordon leans far too often on tired, watery metaphors. Marian's love for her father "had run through her life like a stream." Her thoughts are "minnows in a stream," her mind "a dirty frozen [pool]." What happens, to borrow from Gordon's linguistic playbook, is that a good story gets hopelessly drowned.