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Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
By: 
Mary Gordon
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A Memoir

A-Circling My MotherNovelist and memoirist Mary Gordon limned a frightening picture of her father’s deceptions in The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996). In order to truly understand her mother, she "had to walk around her life, to view it from many points." Circling My Mother presents Anna Gagliano Gordon (1908–2002) in the context of her relationships with her husband, her bosses, her cruel sisters, her Catholic priests, the war, the Great Depression, and the polio that left her physically maimed. In unraveling these relationships, Gordon explores the paradoxes of Anna’s life—from her business acumen, strength, religious faith, and self-sacrifice to her destructive alcoholism and eventual dementia. In writing this memoir, Gordon hopes that, "My mother will not be nothing."
Pantheon. 254 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375424563

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Circling My Mother encompasses the seismic shifts in women’s lives over the course of the 20th century, radical changes in the Catholic Church and the widening of the generation gap as the principles of World War II gave way to moral bankruptcy during the Vietnam War. Not that this is a sociological or political work. It is as personal as literature gets." Donna Seaman

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Mary Gordon is a brilliant writer in all senses of that word; a gifted craftsperson, original scholar, unflinching observer of self and others. … Gordon’s ability to inhabit the past completely, while writing material sharply relevant today, remains keen." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Resurrection is what she nearly achieves in Circling My Mother. But perhaps a better word is re-creation, apt enough for a biographical approach so complete that one wonders why every biography and memoir isn’t structured in the same circular fashion." Rachel Hartigan Shea

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Gordon has written a book that is a bracing work of love, observed and described…. The structure of Circling My Mother serves as a reminder that people we think of only as they are in relation to ourselves can be quite different people in other contexts." Jenny Shank

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Every mother-daughter relationship invites complexity, particularly when scrutinized with the contemplative skills of a writer, but Gordon’s portrait possesses a particularly tormented ambivalence (which she concedes from the start). … Circling My Mother is a curious work—both wrenching and enlivening, resonant with candid emotion and yet sometimes episodic." Gail Caldwell

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Precisely because Gordon defines her mother so strongly by her physical afflictions, she’s never able to give readers a fully realized portrait. There’s a crucial failure of empathy, which may also stem from the fact that Gordon never succeeds in moving out of the spotlight long enough to let it shine on her mother." Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

"I had hoped to tell not only the story of my mother’s life," writes Mary Gordon, "but a larger story, a story that had implications beyond her immediate biography." While highly personal, Gordon successfully places her mother’s life in the context of immigration, war, working-class Catholicism, and economic depression. But critics disagree just how effectively—or compassionately—Gordon captures her mother. Part of the disagreement has to do with what some reviewers describe as Gordon’s lack of empathy toward Anna’s deformity and ugly final days, her jaded perspective, and the episodic, circular narration. For patient readers, however, Gordon offers a haunting, highly rewarding portrait of a complex woman.

Also by the Author

The Shadow Man A Daughter’s Search for Her Father (1996): Gordon idolized her father, who died when she was seven, until her 40s, when she started to research his life. Instead of a Harvard man, devout Catholic, Jazz Age critic, and European sophisticate, she discovers a Lithuanian-born Jew, high school dropout, anti-Semite, supporter of Mussolini and Franco, and editor of a soft-porn magazine. In reconstructing her father’s identity, Gordon comes to terms with her own.