In a 2005 interview, Mary Gordon called herself “a practicing Catholic. . . . The church is in my blood and my bones.” Nevertheless, she refuses to be identified as a “Catholic writer,” a term she considers marginalizing; she prefers to work with ideas rather than doctrine. Her sixth novel, Pearl, begins in New York City on Christmas, 1998, when childhood friends Joseph Kasperman and Maria Meyers have reached their fifties.
Joseph, a quiet, responsible man who hesitates to say what he really thinks, is Maria’s financial guardian and a surrogate father to her daughter Pearl. Maria, who was an activist and protester during the Vietnam War years, inevitably rebelled against her conservative father and his Catholic faith, abandoning both. Later she had a brief affair with a Cambodian doctor who had managed to flee the brutal Pol Pot regime for the United States. After he returned to Cambodia with critically needed medical supplies, he vanished, unaware that she was pregnant with Pearl. Having chafed under her father’s strict surveillance, Maria refused to bring up her beloved daughter in any religion. She has always protected Pearl from life and the Catholic Church.
On Christmas, Maria waits impatiently for Pearl’s holiday phone call. Instead she receives an emergency message from the State Department informing her that her daughter, a linguistics student in Dublin, has just chained herself to a flagpole at the American embassy. For six weeks Pearl has been fasting and now refuses water as well. Horrified, Maria quickly boards a plane for Ireland.
Religion and politics lie at the heart of a centuries-old conflict that culminates at this time between the six counties of Northern Ireland, mostly Protestant and loyal to Britain, and the fiercely Catholic Irish of the south. The year before, when Pearl arrived in Dublin, she learned of the rebel Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army martyr who had starved to death protesting...
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