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A Memoir

by Mary Gordon

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-375-42456-4
Publisher: Pantheon

Fiction writer Gordon (Pearl, 2005, etc.) grapples with the legacy of her complex, troubled mother.

It’s a companion piece to the author’s 1996 memoir of her father, The Shadow Man. Like that earlier book, this is an impressionistic portrait. “I came to realize that I couldn’t see my mother properly by standing in one place,” writes Gordon, explaining her title. “I had to walk around her life, to view it from many points.” She opens and closes this journey with vignettes about painter Pierre Bonnard. In 2002, shortly before her mother’s death, Gordon traveled to Washington, D.C., to see a Bonnard exhibition, escaping from the grim reality of a parent so deep in dementia she had not recognized her daughter for at least five years. In between those two points, the author’s mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, worked for decades as a legal secretary, not retiring until she was 75. She had uneasy relationships with her four sisters (one of whom the author despised) and a strange union with a man who couldn’t seem to lift off the launch pad: “They should never have married,” Gordon declares bluntly. Anna vacationed frequently with two close female friends and later took a few awkward trips to Europe with her daughter; at the Vatican, Mom met the Pope and said he smelled like raisins. She was a practicing, hopeful Roman Catholic who idolized several priests. At times, the author is brutal with herself. She wishes she had visited Anna more often during the final years in a nursing home; she regrets slapping her mother after a contretemps in Ireland. But when the nursing home called to say Anna had died, her daughter screamed.

A pointillist accumulation of moments that movingly invokes speculation, introspection, loss and its habitual companion, regret.