Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife is a collection of four novellas whose main characters seem to be trying to get on with their lives despite issues and secrets from their past. In the case of some, that past suddenly comes back to haunt them as physical presence. In the cases of others, it is more a matter of considering past behavior, be it recent or more removed from the present.
Two of the novellas are set in the past and feature historical figures from the World War II era. In the book’s second piece, “Simone Weil in New York” it is real life French philosopher Simone Weil who suddenly appears in the same New York neighborhood in which one of her former pupils now lives. Now the young woman, who when in her teens idolized Weil, must deal with the disappointment of seeing her former teacher through the recently acquired eyes of an adult. Both are very different people than the ones they were before coming to New York.
“Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana,” the book’s second story focuses on a fictional meeting between that noted German writer and the naïve young high school student chosen to introduce him at a school presentation. The two brief encounters the young student has with the author will greatly impact his life, forcing him to face the question of what a good man does when confronted by as pure an evil as that represented by Adolph Hitler. This fictional Thomas Mann proves to be a hard man to please.
The first of the novellas, “The Liar’s Wife,” is another in which a woman must physically confront a key figure from her past. In this case, it is an ex-husband she has not seen for fifty years, an Irishman with whom she lived in Dublin during their brief time together. The man, a failed musician, wanting to say his final goodbyes, forces his former wife to relive a past she has seldom thought much about since carving out a whole new life for herself – and her reaction surprises her.
In the book’s closing story, “Fine Arts,” a young woman working on an advanced art degree is stung by more recent events from her past that result in a rash decision she fears could ruin her. Her response, to seek solace from those who know her best - an old friend and the nuns who schooled her as a girl – is what she hopes will help her to repair her life.
The two contemporary stories, perhaps because they move at a quicker pace than that of the two stories set in the past, are likely to appeal more to most readers. Their main characters are certainly easier to understand and sympathize with than the Simone Weil and Thomas Mann characters presented by Gordon, both of which are about as unsympathetic – even unlikable - as one can imagine. This makes for an uneven collection, but when Mary Gordon hits the right note, there are few better – and she hits the right note here more times than not.