There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon, review by Bruce Jacobs
A Mary Gordon novel often comes with an aura of gravitas as she explores the confines and subtleties of living life against a background of Catholicism and family legacy. Her early novels Final Payments and The Company of Women set the stage well for her long career. Her latest, There Your Heart Lies, is a novel of history across generations in which a woman seeks a meaningful life that reconciles her desire for universal justice with the need for personal compassion.
Marian is the ninth child of a wealthy Irish-Catholic family. At 19, she abruptly abandons her rigid upbringing in the wake of her brother Johnny's suicide, after his homosexuality was "discovered" and radically "treated." The Church and her father knew best.
In 1937, Marian boards an ocean liner for Europe to support the Republican anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War. Idealistically committed to the new social order of the Communists, she is off to join "people who believe that there are more important things in the world than private life, that the large sorrows of the world are more important than the private sorrows." Helping out in a Valencia hospital, she confronts the tangible horrors of ideological war--the torture and the rubble of homes, families and friends torn apart. She also evolves into a woman with passions and disappointments as she falls for a local doctor and bears his son. For 10 years she is stuck in an autocratic Spain searching for a life with some window of hope.
Layered between the chapters of Marian's life in Spain, Gordon tells the "today" story of Marian's settled life in Rhode Island, now 92 years old and cared for by her 22-year-old granddaughter, Amelia, from Los Angeles. They have formed a bond that parents and friends often can't match. In contrast with the hard angles of Amelia's California life, her "Meme was a warm lap, a curve that had space for things." When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she realizes that her fraught and complicated past needs to be passed on to Amelia, to give her granddaughter a context for her own emerging life. And so at morning coffee, Marian gradually reveals the secrets and legacies of a life well lived, but not without disappointment and disillusion. As she tells Amelia, "she knows now that she was wrong to believe public suffering could eclipse private sorrow. Rather, the two shed garish light on one another, bathing each in a lurid glow."
Gordon rarely strays from the themes that have underpinned much of her fiction. In There Your Heart Lies, she weaves past and present, personal and public, into a rewarding exploration of recognition and acceptance.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.