Bookmarks Issue: 
Mary Gordon

A-PearlGordon has examined faith and religion in both her non-fiction and fiction (The Shadow Man, Men and Angels, Spending). In her eighth book, Gordon continues to ask the big questions: Does love sustain or destroy us? Are we divine? If not, what gives this life meaning? Her protagonist, Maria Meyers, is a strong-willed lapsed Catholic who confronts these issues head on when the State Department calls to inform her that her 20-year-old daughter, Pearl, has chained herself to the American Embassy in Dublin and gone on a hunger strike. When she arrives in Ireland, Maria must discover if she can save her daughter with the same love with which she once nearly suffocated her.
Pantheon. 354 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 037542315X

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Gordon’s job here was to show the intimacy in Pearl’s grand stunt and the grandness in the intimate mother-daughter reunion that follows. In both those tasks, she has most artfully succeeded." Donna Rifkind

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"The stories ... are told by a narrator who addresses the reader directly in the style of the 19th Century, but with the disquieting uncertainty of our own times. … It is a difficult, ultimately rewarding novel, saved from darkness by a luminous belief in language." Jane Ciabattari

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"In the end, Gordon works against herself in bringing the narrative to its uplifting conclusion. Even so, the novel deserves to be read because Gordon confronts the quintessential elements of familial and personal relationships and the ultimate value of life." Frank L. Kaplan

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Gordon demonstrates in several different ways how an obsession, a compulsion, even a martyrdom can begin with a precipitating loneliness or an insistent idea. … But the book’s tone and its relentless focus on suffering make it a problematic one." Jim Higgins

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, Pearl often reads more like a thoughtful essay brimming with ideas than a fully fledged novel with characters that we care deeply about, which is a shame … rhetoric can get in the way of telling a good story." June Sawyers

Critical Summary

Critics agree that Gordon has an extraordinary command of language and that her novel is a relevant look at love, death, the spirit, and religion. They are split, however, on whether or not Pearl sags under the weight of its subjects and whether the questions of suffering become, well, insufferable. Some praise Gordon’s bravery in creating a protagonist, Maria Meyers, who is fiercely maternal but not entirely likeable, while others find the character merely overbearing. Opinions also deviate with respect to the hunger-striking daughter, Pearl: Is she a devotee, emulating the saints? Or she is simply fragile and scared? Overall consensus indicates that readers who crave existential subject matter will devour the book, while others will find Pearl an irritant.