“We all forget things,” says a character in one of the four engaging novellas Mary Gordon collects in The Liar’s Wife. “We must.” Yet despite this sage observation, it is really the act of remembering past associations that serves as a common thread in this beautifullyrendered book. Gordon writes about young, intelligent women and men in the throes of self-discovery at formative junctures in their lives. Each story also has a European connection, which, though sometimes incidental to the main intent of the story, seems to accentuate how innately different the American psyche can be from the old-world one our forebears left behind.

Gordon writes about young, intelligent women and men in the throes of self-discovery at formative junctures in their lives.

The title novella is a story of forced reflection. Jocelyn, a well-heeled, 70-something retired scientist, has her well-ordered life disrupted when the first husband she married and divorced in her 20s appears at her doorstep. Now dying of cancer and heading back to his native Ireland, Johnny is an itinerant musician and inveterate charmer who took his bride to Dublin all those years ago—a place whose foreignness unnerved her and which she quickly fled when Johnny’s mendacious nature became apparent. Now, all these decades later, this liar’s reappearance revives unacknowledged regrets.

“Fine Arts” follows Theresa, a brilliant if sheltered graduate student, to Lucca, Italy, where she is escaping an ill-advised affair with her advisor and searching for the spark of inspiration to ignite her dissertation. In the small Tuscan city, she meets an elderly art collector and, for perhaps the first time in her life, upturns the cart of her narrowly prescribed life.

As their titles would suggest, “Simone Weil in New York” and “Thomas Mann in Gary, Indiana” hinge on imagined American episodes in the lives of two of great midcentury European intellectuals. But the central characters in these stories are not Weil and Mann, but two “ordinary” people they encounter. The Weil story finds Genevieve, a young French mother, living in Manhattan as her American husband fights in the South Pacific. One day, Genevieve bumps into the enigmatic Weil, who had been her teacher in France, on the Upper West Side. She invites the awkward woman back into her life, battling the discomfort and awe she has always felt around this at once spiritual and abrasive woman.

The Mann story recounts the experience of a smart, if callow teenager’s brief brush with the German novelist, who comes to the boy’s high school to rally support against the Nazi threat. Looking back from many years’ distance, the now old man considers how Mann, as abrasive in his way as Weil was in hers, nonetheless forever changed the perceptions of his younger self.

Partly for commercial reasons—too long for a magazine, too short for a full-fledged book—the novella is an underutilized form, but Gordon shows a great affinity for its necessary constraints. In each 60-or-so-page story she manages to compress a trove of details, giving readers wholly fleshed worlds to savor and contemplate.

 

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