The Liar's Wife

Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife consists of four novellas, each about an individual at a different stage of their life. Most look back on previous times, reviewing mistakes that were made and how their life has changed since then.

In the first titled novella, an elderly, retired scientist recalls her brief marriage to a lying, deceiving Irishman and her life in Dublin before she simply walked out on him. Many years later, he and his new wife, both looking like hippies, visit her at her home in Maine. After the night they spend there, she realizes, “Without Johnny she wouldn’t have known, really, who she was. Because he had taught her who she was not.”

In “Simone Weil in New York,” French born Genevieve, now living in New York with her husband, child, and brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is troubled by the forthcoming visit of Weil. She and her parents had fled France to escape the Nazis who had overrun the country. Weil decides to visit Genevieve, once a student in her classes.

Genevieve dreads having to spend time with her, day after day listening to her moral hectoring and is no longer interested in engaging in the unanswerable questions Weil keeps pestering her with. Eventually Weil leaves for England to join the French Resistance group there. Genevieve asks, “How is she able to say these things; how did she become the way she is. She comes from a loving family… a maimed genius? A Saint? A madwoman?”

Bill Morton a 90 year-old retired physician looks back on “the greatest day of my life” in the third novella, “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana.” Young Bill Morton was chosen to introduce Thomas Mann to his classmates when he visited the school after fleeing Nazi Germany.

Bill’s reminiscences as he unfolds the visit are moving. He recalls Mann’s speech to the students was “electrifying.” It was almost as if were being given shock treatments…but instead of torment, being replaced by nullity, the nullity of my own life…of what it meant to be human in a world that was full of evil and greatness, of terms and conditions larger than I had ever imagined.

Mann remarks: I have spoken to you of truth, justice, civilization, democracy … Civilization is in retreat. A period of lawlessness and anarchy reigns over the outward life of people…Evil has been revealed to us in such crassness and meanness that our eyes have been opened to the dignity and simple beauty of the good…I salute you in this country that is conscious of its own human inadequacy, a country that perseveres in a faith which is sound and utterly necessary to life—faith in goodness, in freedom and truth, in justice and in peace.

Many years later Bill enters the University of Chicago during the era of Robert Hutchins. It was the first time he had lived away from home. His excitement at reading the Great Books is an experience well known to me, the study of the Socratic method, the insistence on rigorous scientific evidence, debates about he theory of a just war and moral responsibility. It was one of the golden ages of academic education.

While he loves the study of the literature, Bill knew he would never be a great literary scholar and he saw no point in pursuing the subject unless he was going to be great at it. And so he devoted the rest of his life to medicine.

In “Fine Arts,” Theresa Riordan, a brilliant student in Catholic seminary, is sent by the nuns to a highly regarded university. While there she discovers her love of arts and in particular a rarely known Italian sculptor. After a brief, disastrous, affair with her married professor, she is granted a stipend that enables her to spend a month in Lucca studying the 15th century sculptor, Mateo Civitali.

While there she meets a wealthy, elderly collector, Signore Allard, who has several works by the sculptor. He becomes her guide and mentor as they meet for meals each day and visit museums that have other works by Civitali. After dinner one night the aged Signore Allard is killed as his car runs off the road on the way to his villa.

The fairy tale story ends when, back in America, Theresa receives a telephone call from Allard’s attorney with the following bit of news: Signore Allard has provided very handsomely for you. The villa and its contents belong to you; he has arranged that the staff be kept on, that they be paid an annuity only as long as they continue to work there. And has left you a very large sum of cash because he makes a point that you will be responsible for the upkeep of the villa as he left it....I hope you can come to Lucca as soon as possible.

It is difficult to identify any underlying theme that connects the four novellas. There are ideas that crop up in some, but not all—beauty, affliction, privilege, injustice, responsibility. But otherwise each tale stands alone in my mind, a set of short stories that in no way diminishes the pleasure of Mary Gordon’s The Liar’s Wife.