By Mary Gordon. Pantheon. 368 pages. $24.95.
It was in Carol Shields' remarkable novel, Unless, that readers encountered a character named Norah, who, at the age of 20, drops out of college one day to sit on a grimy street corner with a sign that reads "Goodness" about her neck. Shields' novel asks where an impulse like that one comes from, forcing readers to think hard about how society, culture, and upbringing are or are not implicated in such a mystifying act.
Bewildering brands of personal politics can wreak havoc. Reason can seem impotent in the face of extreme stances, devout causes.
Similar themes propel Mary Gordon's eighth novel, Pearl. In this case, the co-ed in distress is a girl named Pearl, also 20 years old, who has gone to Ireland to study linguistics but has gotten caught in the trap of local politics. When the novel opens, Pearl has eaten nothing for six weeks. She has chained herself to a flagpole on American embassy grounds in Dublin; she has written a statement and two personal letters.
Pearl has prepared herself to die. She fights those who want to cut her free from the cold, inhospitable ground.
Pearl's mother, Maria, "wants to claw against the incomprehension" she feels when she receives the news on Christmas night from a State Department official.
She's an energetic, can-do woman, Maria is, a single mother who prefers the liberation of adultery to the stiltedness of marriage and despises, above all else, that which she cannot understand. She's on a plane as soon as she can get on a plane. She's headed to Dublin, where she'll rendezvous with Joseph, an old, reliable family friend. Will her daughter die? Will her daughter live? For the moment, Maria's powerless.
Readers of this novel will have to get through a somewhat tedious first half of the book before the present situation changes. While Pearl remains chained and Maria flies across the ocean and Joseph waits for a flight that will take him from Italy to Dublin, the narrator of the novel fills in the details on the players. We learn about Pearl's father (a hero of sorts from Vietnam who never met his daughter), about Maria's relationship to Joseph (his mother was the domestic help who took care of Maria and her widowed father), and about Maria's own political past and stance.
We also come to see that the omnipresent, sometimes preening, often condescending narrator controls this story, its pacing, its tone, its themes: Perhaps you would like some clues from Pearl's childhood to help you unravel the mystery of why she is doing what she is doing now.
Would it help you to know what kind of child Pearl was? Or - a related but not identical question -what kind of childhood she had?
Pearl is a much better novel once its young, self-sacrificing heroine is cut away from the pole and removed to a hospital. It's in the second half that the story gathers steam, there where dialogue and plot get far more play than that interfering interlocutor. Pearl is ultimately about forgiveness and faith, and Gordon, who has written memoir, as well as a biography of Joan of Arc, has some interesting things to say about both topics. She might have trusted her own characters more, early on, to keep the faith of readers.
Beth Kephart's fifth book, Ghosts in the Garden, is due out in the spring.