Circling My Mother

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Mary Gordon has since 1978 published eight works of fiction. Circling My Mother is her second memoir. Her first, The Shadow Man (1996), chronicled her father, David Gordon’s, life story. He had died when she was seven years old. In researching and writing that book, Gordon found and came to terms with a father different, in negative ways, from the one she had loved deeply.

Gordon’s mother, Anna Gordon, the subject of Circling My Mother, died in 2002 at the age of ninety-four. Mary Gordon writes, “I write about her because I am a writer and it’s the only way that I can mourn her.” For ten years before her death, Anna suffered from dementia and lived in a nursing home. In a sense, then, Gordon lost her mother ten years earlier than her final day. In reading this memoir, one gets a sense that Gordon felt that she never understood her subject and that as she writes she is not only mourning her mother but also searching for an understanding of and intimacy with her mother that eluded her all her life.

The reader interacts with Anna in the way that the writer, in the first and last chapters, perceives the art of French Impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). In the first chapter, Gordon intertwines her insights into Bonnard’s paintings and her mother at ninety. Her mother is physically, emotionally, and mentally almost totally lost. Leaving a Bonnard exhibit to visit her mother at the nursing home, Gordon writes that she leaves behind what in art sustains her: the knowledge that “a fully realized painterly vision testifies in its fullness to the goodness of life.” After her mother dies, Gordon sets herself the task of collecting the pieces of Anna’s life into her own presentation of her mother that will, the writer hopes, show that her life, despite Gordon’s inability to see it while her mother lived, was full and good. At the book’s conclusion, as she writes about Bonnard’s art and her mother’s death, Gordon says: “I am trying to speak of my love for my mother. Of her charm.” Through writing Circling My Mother, making her mother “become my words,” Mary Gordon, a true artist, creates the intimacy with her mother’s full and good life, for herself and for the reader.

Gordon, as her title announces, employs a nonlinear structure that lacks the chronological structure more common for a memoir. She circles her mother as if she might by this technique capture her mother and hold her close. Within each chapter, segments of prose are visually separated by white space, like the disparate pieces of narrative Gordon compiles from facts and images, story after story, some discovered by accident, some researched, some pulled from memory, some uttered by her mother in her drunken rages. Although there is some sense of chronology as a chapter topic is developed, connections between these segments are minimal. Gordon’s relationship with her mother had no coherent flow; neither does a page of narrative.

Between the first and last chapters of her book, in which she intertwines Bonnard’s art and the final years of her mother’s life, Gordon chooses to see her mother in relationships grouped by categories. Thus, five chapters focus on her mother’s employers, sisters, friends, church, and husband. The subjects of these five chapters are clearly named in grammatically parallel titles: for example, “My Mother and Her Bosses” and “My Mother and Her Sisters.” However, the titles of the chapters in which Gordon looks at her own relationship with her mother during Gordon’s childhood“My Mother: Words and Music, “My Mother and the Great World,” “My Mother’s Body”omit a word that connects mother and daughter.

In the first of the relationship chapters, “My Mother and Her Bosses,” the reader learns that Anna Gordon worked in an office when she was a single woman, a wife and mother, and, after her husband’s death, a single parent, most of the time as a secretary in one lawyer’s office. She did not marry until she was thirty-nine years old; she did not bear a child until she was forty-one, and was soon widowed. She was a working woman. As seen by her young daughter, her mother put working for this employer as greater in importance than her child. At the same time, the child took pride in the fact that her mother, unlike her friends’ mothers, drove herself to work every day.

Struggling to understand her mother’s devotion to and pride in her employment, Gordon uses the power of imagery that is her gift as...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2007): 4.

Commonweal 134, no. 19 (November 9, 2007): 27-29.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 12 (June 15, 2007): 590-591.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (August 26, 2007): 1-10.

The New Yorker 83, no. 26 (September 3, 2007): 133.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 25 (June 18, 2007): 49.