The Liars' Club

by Mary Karr

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Survival of Love
The Liars' Club is in many ways a grim story of the disruption of family life caused by a quarreling husband and wife, and a mother's alcoholism and mental instability. Although the devastating effect of this behavior on the children is apparent everywhere, especially in the aggressive behavior of Mary, it is not the main theme of the memoir. The main theme is the endurance of familial love in the worst of circumstances. The bonds generated by blood ties, even when put under tremendous strain, exercise a continual hold on the emotions and loyalties of the characters in the memoir.

It is noticeable that Karr, although writing as an adult, has preserved the non-judgmental ways in which young children view their parents, even when the parents behave as badly as the Karrs do. Mary and Lecia never seem to blame their mother for her actions; they seem to be quite mature in their realization that it is simply the way Mother is and sometimes they even take the initiative to look after her.

The love between father and daughter is never in question either, even though there are long periods when Mary sees little of her father. One of the most poignant moments in the memoir is when the two sisters return to Texas from Colorado to live with their father. He lies on the bed with the girls on either side of him and weeps tears of joy at their return. He prays that Charlie Marie will come back to him and sobs as he does so. As they do with their mother, the girls sense what their father needs, and they gently pat him until he quiets down.

The fact that Pete Karr prays for the return of the woman with whom he regularly had such vicious fights is also significant. There seems to be a bond between them that is hard to break, no matter what happens. In their own turbulent way, the couple continues to love each other.

The triumph of love is made most explicit in the last section of the book, set in 1980, when Karr was in her mid-twenties. It shows that the bonds of this thoroughly dysfunctional family remain tight. For example, there is a moment during the time Karr is caring for her father when she plays the audiotape she recorded of one of the stories he told to the Liars' Club. It takes her back to the days when by his storytelling gift her father could take her to times and places she had never known except through his voice. Just before playing the tape, she looks at her father's face, so shrunken and gaunt, and for a split second sees it as a death's head. At this point she wants nothing more than to hear him tell one of his stories. Playing the taped story while they both listen is a way of affirming life and the bond they share.

The endurance of love is also shown when Karr discovers the truth about why her mother went through such long periods of depression and mental instability (i.e., the loss of her children from her first marriage). This knowledge frees them both from feelings of guilt and allows more love to be present, even though it is a while before they both realize this.

A symbol of the endurance of love occurs on the last page of the memoir. As mother and daughter drive home from the Mexican café where all the secrets have been divulged, Mary notices small gatherings of fireflies in the flowers at the roadside: ‘‘How odd, I thought, that those bugs lived through the refinery poisons.’’ She is referring to the toxic fumes that emanate from the oil refineries of Leechfield, but she also means for the reader to make the connection: the light of love, like a firefly in the night, continues to live in spite of the toxic atmosphere generated by a quarreling family.

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Chapter Summaries