In Gordon’s voice-driven first novel, an Italian-American recounts the unsentimental story of her life and the overlapping lives of her friends and family.
Mary Marelli is born in 1945, in Jersey City, where she is innocent and happy. An only child, she feels loved and protected by her mother and her father, a musician who holds various day jobs, by her barkeep grandfather, by her “tough dame” aunts, and by an assortment of low-level Mafiosi and hoods, like Tony the Horse and Charlie Cupacoffee, who treat her like a princess. When Mary is 12, however, her mother contracts a debilitating disease. With her father increasingly absent, the girl must tend to her mother’s emotional as well as physical needs. Then handsome Bobby Nolan proposes, and Mary, now 16, mistakenly sees marriage as her escape route. But not only does she bear two sons, one right after the other, before she’s 20, but her ever-weakening mother, until her painful death, spends her days at Mary’s house, too. The strain on the Nolans’ marriage is inevitable. They prosper financially, and both are exemplary parents, but their marriage falls apart after Bobby has a blatant affair. Discovering she has no one else to turn to, Mary depends on herself, even trying a stint as a bookie to earn some money to stash away. Despite Bobby’s earnest and endearing attempts to win her back, Mary goes through with a divorce and takes a clerical job to support her boys and herself. She rises professionally, becoming a real-estate broker, and, though she and Bobby never remarry, they stay connected. By middle age, Mary has achieved a hard-won equilibrium combining romance, independence, and financial security. Her narrative is artfully casual, doubling back from present to past, with little artificial plot or melodramatic suspense but plenty of pithy detail as Mary’s world evolves with the decades.
Though in less skilled hands she could be a minor sitcom heroine, newcomer Gordon’s Mary is simply irresistible.