(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Other Side traces an Irish American family, the MacNamaras, through five generations, from the “old sod” to “the other side,” as the Irish called America. Framed by the events of one day, August 14, 1985, the story spans ninety years, weaving the memories of various family members throughout to tell the tale. The book consists of five sections: The first and last parts introduce the family members and set the scene in the present; the second relates Ellen MacNamara’s memories of her life; the third explores the lives of second-, third-and fourth-generation MacNamaras; and the fourth recounts the past from Vincent’s point of view.

The novel opens as Vincent MacNamara recalls the night some ten months earlier when his wife Ellen, ninety years old and cruelly debilitated from a series of strokes, rises from her bed and strikes out at him in a senseless rage. She knocks him down, breaking his hip and leaving him helpless as she wanders into the street in her nightclothes. Vincent, who summons help by hurling family heirlooms through the window, spends ten months in a rest home recuperating, while Ellen continues to fluctuate between rage, fear, and sleep under the care of a domineering nurse at home. The story returns to the present as the family gathers to celebrate Vincent’s return from the nursing home.

As Ellen drifts closer to death, her memories of the past become stronger than her grip on the present, and she relives her life. Her idyllic existence as the only child of a beautiful mother and handsome, successful father degenerates into a nightmare as her mother is transformed by a series of miscarriages and stillbirths into a fat, gibbering madwoman while her father takes up...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

The Other Side Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gordon’s fourth novel is one of the most vivid presentations in American fiction of the experiences of Irish immigrants in the twentieth century. Centering on the life histories of Vincent and Ellen MacNamara and depicting the lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren as well, The Other Side is also an intricate and perceptive examination of the dynamics of familial relationships.

Unlike the conventional generational sagas of popular fiction, The Other Side is not linear in structure. The novel focuses on a single day in August, 1985, at the home in Queens Village, New York, in which Ellen and Vincent MacNamara have lived since 1922. The extended family has gathered to welcome the eighty-eight-year-old Vincent home from his long stay in a nursing home, where he has been recovering from a broken hip he suffered when Ellen, a stroke victim suffering from mental disorientation, knocked him to the floor. Although Vincent prefers the friendly community of the nursing home, he is returning home to fulfill a promise he made to Ellen sixty years ago, that he would let her die in her own bed, with him there, rather than among strangers. Moving back and forth in time through the inner reflections of diverse family members, Gordon pieces together a patterned whole whose configurations resemble those of an elaborate patchwork quilt.

The novel is divided into five long sections. Sections 1, 3, and 5 shift in focus from one character to another; their variety of viewpoints balances section 2, told from Ellen’s perspective, and section 4, told from Vincent’s.

Vincent is motivated primarily by love—for his wife, for his children and grandchildren, for his friends, and for life itself. He seeks genuine enjoyment for himself and for those he loves, and although he is a very old man, he is hungry for life. Vincent’s problem is that he can no longer afford Ellen any enjoyment beyond her satisfaction, which she probably will be unable to...

(The entire section is 819 words.)