The Liar’s Wife – four novellas - by Mary Gordon
There is an art to the short story that we all recognize – an author’s ability to say in only a few words all there is to say. We may wonder what happens next, but we often wonder that at the end of novels as well. The novella is just what you expect – a piece of writing longer than the typical short story – and shorter than a novel.
Mary Gordon gives us four perfect novellas in The Liar’s Wife. In the title story, we meet Jocelyn, alone at home – or more accurately alone in her recently deceased mother’s home. Not able to give it up she comes here sometimes by herself leaving her husband in the city. She remembers the happy years growing up here. She tends the garden, she has a glass of wine – or more – watching the day come to an end. She watches the goings on of the neighbours – and one night notices an unusual vehicle parked on the street – obviously not owned by one of her affluent neighbours. And into her life walks – or more accurately struts - her first love. Her long ago left behind first husband.
Simone Weil in New York follows. In New York City, during the Second World War, a brother, Laurent, and his sister, Genevieve, live peacefully. Again, a person from the past re-enters the lives of our characters. Genevieve always expected this might happen – and now wonders how to protect her present life from the influence of the past.
Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana finds 17 year-old, Bill preparing to step out into the world – with the assistance of a teacher who encourages him to study the writing of Thomas Mann. Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain and other works by this author, as he will be presenting an address at the high school Bill attends and he has been chosen as the student host. It is 1939, some who have fled Germany have found safety in the United States including Bill’s teacher, but Bill is unaware of the Nazi threat as he enjoys the final days of high school, and tortures himself over his desperate lust for Laurel Jansen. As the months pass many things happen. There is humour, there is tragedy, there is the coming of understanding and the approach of adulthood – and finally the arrival of Thomas Mann and his touch of greatness.
The book concludes with Fine Arts, the story of a young woman, Theresa Riordan, who is expected to become the next great expert on the Italian artist “Matteo Civitali, a fifteenth-century sculptor, most of whose work was in Lucca”. We meet Theresa on the train to Lucca where is going to “explore her dissertation topic” for her Ph.D. in Art History. She is now in the country whose art she has studied for so long – living her dream, though Theresa is not a dreamy girl – and her most recent romance has come to a resounding end. Taken under the wing of an elderly man, also an expert on Civitali, Theresa blossoms both intellectually and physically as Italy changes her.
How can you not love the writing of Mary Gordon who describes the crowd at a gallery opening when Theresa observes, “everyone else was in jeans, except for some of the women, who wore short skirts that fitted their buttocks like bandages”.
The surprise ending is a delight and a fit conclusion to a collection that was a pleasure to read from start to finish.