Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mary Gordon’s novel Pearl begins with a phone call on Christmas night, 1998, from the American embassy in Dublin, Ireland, to Maria Meyers in New York. To her horror, Maria learns that her twenty-year-old daughter Pearl, who had gone to Ireland to study the Irish language, has chained herself to the embassy flagpole, evidently as a protest for peace. Pearl has not eaten for six weeks, and because she has now begun to refuse water as well as food, she is near death from dehydration. In desperation, the embassy has telephoned Maria, hoping that her appearance will convince Pearl to relent.
Maria arranges to take the next plane to Dublin. Before she leaves, however, she telephones her oldest friend, Joseph Kasperman, in Rome, knowing that he will come to Dublin to offer whatever aid he can. Kasperman grew up with Maria; his mother was hired as a housekeeper for the Meyers family after Pearl’s mother died. Pearl’s affection for him is evident in that one of the letters she had written in anticipation of her death was to Kasperman; the other, of course, was to her mother. In the letters, Pearl admits that she knows her death will cause them pain, but she hopes that they will understand.
Although the novel is written in the third person, the perspective is always a limited one. Sometimes it is that of Pearl, often that of Maria, and at other times that of Kasperman. Pearl has finally been unchained and taken to a hospital, where she...
(The entire section is 521 words.)