Mary Gordon's novel Pearl is a weighty meditation on the complexity of familial bonds and the burdens of guilt and forgiveness. On an otherwise unremarkable Christmas Day, single mother Maria Meyers receives an earth-shattering phone call from the State Department. Her beloved daughter Pearl, studying abroad in Ireland, has embarked on a six-week hunger strike and chained herself to a pole in front of the American Embassy for reasons that remain unclear. Frantic, Maria heads to Ireland, hoping she can intervene before it's too late. The only clues to Pearl's bizarre actions are gleaned from letters found on the ground beside her nearly comatose body: one is addressed to her mother and the other to close family friend Joseph Kasperman. In the documents, Pearl declares she is sacrificing her life to bear witness to the death of a young boy, an event for which she feels partially responsible, as well as to make a political statement for the peace process. Arriving on the scene, Maria struggles to piece together the private world of the daughter she thought she knew one whose seemingly well-adjusted, apolitical veneer bore no hint of the tortured emotions that led her to these actions. As Pearl hovers on the brink of death, Maria and Joseph must instill in her the will to live while facing down their own recriminations for past failures. This moving philosophical novel lends many penetrating insights into the human psyche, although the intrusive presence of an unidentified narrator erects a barrier that keeps the reader from becoming fully engaged in the plight of the characters. Fortunately, the author's sharply observed, intimate portraits of the characters' emotional lives overcomes the distance invoked by the narrative voice.
Most compelling of all is the nuanced portrayal of the changes wrought within Maria, Joseph and Pearl as they grapple with some of life's universal questions. The ultimately uplifting message delivered is that hope springs from the power of human beings to change and that the sheer act of living makes a stronger statement than even the noblest of deaths can achieve.