Pearl opens abruptly with the State Department phoning Maria Meyers on Christmas night with the news that her daughter Pearl, a student in Dublin, has chained herself to an embassy flagpole and is dying of a hunger strike. Maria phones her friend Joseph Kasperman in Rome, and the two resolve to meet in Dublin.
Pearl has carefully planned her demonstration, leaving letters for her mother, Joseph, and the press, and declaring that she is bearing witness to the death of Stevie Donegan, an obscure person, and to the virtue of the Good Friday Peace Accords that ended violence in Northern Ireland. Pearl resists all efforts to save her until she can no longer resist the police and is sent to the hospital. There she once more resists efforts on her behalf but is slowly nursed back to health.
Divided into three concentric narratives, the book also concentrates on her mother’s attempts to come to terms with her own life and her daughter’s incomprehensible decision to sacrifice her life. She battles with Pearl’s attending physician for the right to visit her child. She visits Pearl’s friends, who can shed little light on the girl’s motivations. Meanwhile Joseph ponders what he can do to save the girl he has always regarded as a surrogate daughter and decides that by marrying her he can protect her from her mother and the threats of world with which he has never fully engaged himself.
The novel engages a number of complex themes, the first and most prominent of which is the notion of family bonds and inheritances. Neither Maria nor Joseph was particularly close to their respective parents. Maria, for instance, rebelled against her father and his confining version of parenting. “Maria hated the surveillance of her own childhood, the privileged enclosure, being kept from the world as if she were a fragile and precocious object.” Although she convinces herself that she has created a life of freedom and openness for Pearl, the girl’s Wellesley College education, study abroad, and personal affluence breed a sense of guilt and exclusivity. Where her mother is a devotee of every noble social cause or movement, Pearl is diffident and uninvolved, a shy, retiring antithesis to her mother’s confidence and assertive righteousness.
As well as in her other novels, author Mary Gordon traces the links between generations in families; for all of their apparent differences, these generations inevitably replicate one another. Maria worships Roman Catholic saints; Pearl becomes enamored of a secular saint, Bobby Sands, a modern Irish icon of resistance and self-sacrifice. In her own dramatic gesture, Pearl reveals herself truly to be her mother’s daughter, living a life of abnegation and service to others. When an adolescent Maria tells a Jewish neighbor that “you must lose your life in order to gain it,” she augurs her child’s self-destructive gesture. Just as sorrow and defeat is bred in the MacNamaras of Gordon’s The Other Side (1989), devotion to others and to a grand cause are Maria and Pearl’s congenital dispositions.
As she has done in so many of her novels and essays, Gordon examines cultural differences, especially those between Ireland and America, and she implicitly questions what culture represents for Americans, a people who the are the product of a heterogeneous mix of cultures and attitudes. The Irish in Pearl, at least those given the most exposure, are pathetic people who want a sense of political urgency in their lives. They are convinced the 1998 peace accords are little more than political cooption, yet aside from drinking and railing they have no agenda or concrete political alternatives. Nevertheless, they possess a sense of urgency, a notion of history, however fractured, and a conviction which defines their lives.
By contrast, the Americans, and especially Pearl, have no ideology, no sense of history, no compelling sense of a world outside their private concerns. The narrator suggests as much when posing the...
(The entire section is 1648 words.)