History, art, politics, even botany: Mary Gordon’s fiction infuses all of these things—and so much more—with the intensity of religious experience.
This can be taken to ghastly extremes, as in Gordon’s powerful 2005 novel Pearl. In that story, the daughter of a thoroughly assimilated, lapsed Catholic goes to Ireland to study linguistics. In the wake of Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreements of 1998, the once-apolitical title character ends up going on a hunger strike and chaining herself to a flagpole.
In Gordon’s latest novel, the cleverly titled There Your Heart Lies, she portrays another act of self-mutilation—this time by a priest. As in Pearl, it is a horrific act, motivated not by a radical dedication to a single cause but by simmering conflicts spanning generations, even continents.
If Pearl, broadly speaking, looked at the legacy of the 1960s, There Your Heart Lies stretches back to explore the long shadow cast by the 1930s. Marian Taylor, as with many Gordon protagonists, is born into a very rich, very conservative Catholic family: “the Newport and Park Avenue Taylors…a family of nine.” Like Pearl’s mother, Marian revolts. Following a tragedy, which was exacerbated by the family’s religious beliefs, Marian does pretty much the worst thing a woman of her background and station could do. She marries a Jewish Communist.
There Your Heart Lies, is first and foremost, a vivid reminder of the tumult unleashed by the Spanish Civil War. (In fact, Gordon’s novel is a colorful companion to read alongside Spain in Our Hearts, Adam Hochschild’s excellent 2016 history.) Marian travels to Spain with her new husband to volunteer in the fight against Franco and the fascists. A soap opera’s worth of romance and tragedy ensue, leaving Marian to live for years under the roof of a tyrannical Franco sympathizer.
The church is on the receiving end of some harsh words in There Your Heart Lies, another common element in Gordon’s fiction. Marian declares that she “hasn’t the slightest shred of anything but rage-filled aversion for the institutional church.” She later observes, with some truth, that “there was a particular kind of Catholicism that was uniquely American. They combined the worst prejudices of the worst Americans with the worst of being Catholic.”
You can call these harsh truths, or overstated half-truths, or self-loathing, or even anti-Catholicism. But whatever label finally fits best, the point is that the sheer passion and rage behind Marian’s rejection of the church illustrates the degree to which her life—and the lives of her generation—were shaped by Catholicism. “So often,” Gordon writes, “the echoes from a lost faith, a faith willfully and violently discarded, bob up, float up, unbidden, unwelcome, the flotsam and jetsam of a vanished way of life.”