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by Mary Gordon
ISBN 1400078075 / 9781400078073 / 1-4000-7807-5
Publisher Random House Inc
List price $14.00
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Without preamble, Mary Gordon takes the reader straight to the heart of the matter in Pearl. On Christmas night, in 1998, Maria Meyers gets a call from the State Department. Maria, a New York liberal, keeps the illusion of control of her surroundings, and the news she gets is confusing, annoying, and frightening. Confusing because she doesn't understand why Pearl, 20 years old and Maria's only child, has done what she has done, annoying because there has been no forewarning, and frightening because Pearl might die. Maria is definitely not in control here, a condition that makes her vastly uncomfortable. The caller tells Maria that Pearl has chained herself to the flagpole at the American Embassy in Dublin, where she has gone to study the Irish language. Her action is the culmination of six weeks of starvation. She is very ill, dehydrated, and near death. She has left three letters on the sidewalk: one meant for the media, one for her mother, and one for their dearest and oldest family friend, Joseph Kasperman.
The media letter says "...I am giving my life in witness to the death of Stephen Donegan and to the goodness and importance of his life. Second, to show my support, my admiration for the Peace Agreement, and those who have worked toward it. Third, to mark the human will to harm." Pearl believes that, due to a careless remark said in anger, she is responsible for Stephen's death. She has been consorting with members of the Real IRA, those hardliners who will make no accommodation to stop the violence. Pearl breaks with them over an act which places Stephen, a hapless, slow-witted boy, in the hands of the law. Her primary philosophical concern is her conviction that the "human will to harm," is pernicious and pervasive. She wants to opt out of any further possibility of harming anyone.
On this convoluted thread, Mary Gordon marches forward with a stunning exploration of revisited themes, such as Catholic-Jewish heritage, trouble with fathers, and the nature of personal responsibility. A stylistic note: Gordon employs an omniscient narrator to make comments, in the nature of "Gentle Reader" asides. It is sometimes irritating, but a small price to pay for Gordon's careful deconstruction of everyone's thoughts and actions as Maria and Joseph arrive in Dublin, where Maria confronts Mick, the American angel of the Real IRA, Finbar, Pearl's lover, and Pearl's doctors. She is used to directing traffic and is thwarted on all sides by people whose agendas are vastly different from hers. Joseph is a shadowy figure, more acted upon than acting, and when he does decide to stand up he makes a ludicrous error. Gordon has forged an entirely satisfactory and plausible ending for a precarious set of circumstances. The book is thought-provoking, asking and inspiring the reader to take a position on issues as old as time and as new as the headlines. --Valerie Ryan [via]