Synopses & Reviews
On Christmas night, 1998, Maria Meyers a New York single mother with a radical past receives a call from the State Department: her daughter, Pearl, who is studying abroad at Trinity College, Dublin, has chained herself to the flagpole outside the American embassy and has not eaten in six weeks. Pearl has written a statement saying that her hunger strike is an act of witness, marking the death of a young man in the aftermath of the contested Irish peace agreement a death for which she feels personally responsible and calling attention to the human will to harm. Maria, who has always congratulated herself on Pearl's impeccable liberal upbringing, must reexamine all her assumptions about Pearl as she boards a plane for Ireland, determined to prevent her daughter's death. At the same time, Joseph Kasperman, Maria's friend since childhood and Pearl's surrogate father, flies to Dublin from Rome to help.
In Pearl, Mary Gordon engages us in the lives of Maria, Joseph, and Pearl, flashing back to their complex histories: the conflicted experience with church and politics that shaped Maria in the 1960s; questions of responsibility and the nature of beauty that have shaped Joseph's understanding; the anguish of Pearl, the serious girl whose early inklings of the will to harm seem borne out in a world grown increasingly perilous.
"Gordon's latest novel opens in medias res on Christmas night in New York City with a phone call from the State Department. Maria Meyers's 20-year-old daughter, Pearl, supposedly studying linguistics for a year in Ireland, has chained herself to a flagpole outside the American embassy in Dublin. For reasons that are unclear, she has starved herself for six weeks and is now in serious danger of dying from dehydration. Without understanding Pearl's motivation for the hunger strike, Maria must try and save her daughter's life. Readers of Gordon's fiction (Spending; The Company of Women) and memoir (The Shadow Man) will recognize familiar themes in her latest book: Maria is a single mother raised as a Catholic by her converted Jewish father; she comes of age in the 1960s and trades her religion for that era's brand of critical thinking. Now, with her daughter dying, Maria must re-examine her faith, her parenting and her political ideals. Told by an unidentified first-person narrator, the story unfolds over the course of a few days. Even as the life-or-death crisis comes to a head, Maria and her best friend, Joseph, are busy tackling God, sacrifice, female autonomy and the meaning of happiness. The novel's conceit provides plenty of opportunities for philosophical musing, but given this set of morose and mostly unlikable characters, the relentless self-examination grows tedious. Agent Peter Matson at Sterling Lord Literistic. 7-city author tour. (Jan. 11)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Elegant prose, thought-provoking plot, mammoth themes and sometimes slow-going." Kirkus Reviews
"Religion, political martyrdom, and thwarted dreams do battle with maternal desperation and cautious hope. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"All of [Gordon's] books are exquisite and penetrating, but in this riveting novel, her compelling characters and their spiritual quandaries, her profound inquiries into beauty, compassion, and forgiveness, and the sheer radiance of her prose are surpassingly suspenseful, brilliant, and affecting." Booklist
"Gordon gives God the third degree, in a demanding and rewarding brainy-brawny novel that complicates our understanding of the world instead of coarsening it, that seasons the senses instead of stupefying." John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review
"A penetrating novel called Pearl
by Mary Gordon, explores the allure of political extremism in starkly personal terms. How glorious, Gordon asks, is the choice between ideals or death when a loved one is choosing suicide?....Gordon follows this crisis with deep respect for the difficulties involved and never arrives at anything like an answer, but the light she sheds along the way is very provocative." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
From the acclaimed author of Final Payments comes a gripping novel of filial devotion and complication between a mother and daughter who, together and separately, must face the ultimate questions of life and death.
On Christmas night of 1998, Maria Meyers learns that her twenty-year-old daughter, Pearl, has chained herself outside the American embassy in Dublin, where she intends to starve herself to death. Although Maria was once a student radical and still proudly lives by her beliefs, gentle, book-loving Pearl has never been interested in politics–nor in the Catholicism her mother rejected years before. What, then, is driving her to martyr herself?
Shaken by this mystery, Maria and her childhood friend (and Pearls surrogate father), Joseph Kasperman, both rush to Pearls side. As Mary Gordon tells the story of the bonds among them, she takes us deep into the labyrinths of maternal love, religious faith, and Irelands tragic history. Pearl is a grand and emotionally daring novel of ideas, told with the tension of a thriller.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. The narrator of Pearl
commences with an address to the reader, “We may as well begin,” and continues on with his/her omniscient view of the story, with occasional asides to the reader. What is the effect of this narrative method? How does the narrator tell the story, and how does he/she guide us in making judgments about the narrative and the principal characters? Do we follow the narrator when he/she talks directly to us with asides such as, “Of course we do not agree with [Pearl]”? Do you like or trust the narrator?
2. The plot of Pearl, which unfolds in fifty-two chapters, takes place over the course of about one week (starting with Christmas Day, 1998, and ending just before New Years) and is interspersed with flashbacks focusing on the backgrounds and perspectives of the three main characters. Why did Mary Gordon choose this structure? What is its effect on you as a reader?
3. Describe the vital role religion plays in Pearl. How have Maria and Joseph been influenced, in similar and different ways, by their Catholic upbringings? How does the fact that Marias father is a Jewish convert to Catholicism affect him, his daughter, and Joseph? How has the lack of religion in Pearls childhood affected her? How are music and religion conjoined for many secondary characters in Pearl?
4. Discuss the themes of betrayal, guilt, and forgiveness in the novel. What types of betrayal occur? What are the causes and consequences? In what ways does each character forgive, and how is each forgiven by the end of the book? If you were Stevies mother, would you have forgiven Pearl? Would you have forgiven Joseph if you were Pearl? Would you have forgiven or rejected your father if you were Maria? Give some other examples of betrayal and forgiveness in the novel. What is the author saying about the nature of both betrayal and forgiveness?
5. What kind of mother is Maria? How do you think Marias lack of a mother affected her as a mother? What choices and sacrifices has she made as a single mother? How have these affected Pearl? Describe the other mother-child relationships in the novel: Breeda and Stevie, Joseph and Mrs. Kasperman.
6. What is the definition of family in this novel? What determines or undermines familial relationships? What is the significance of the lack of any traditional family unit (mother, father, and child)?
7. How does history, in particular the legacy of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, influence the plot of the novel? How do world events of the 1960s and 1970s affect the characters in the late 1990s? Why is Pearl so moved by recent Irish history? How are history and memory related in this novel?
8. In what ways is Pearl both sharing a story and commenting on the importance of stories and language in our lives? Why does Pearl write letters before willing herself to die? How and why does she use her body as language for her final message? In what way does Toms story bring Pearl back to life? Why does Maria use a childrens story to feel close to Pearl in the hospital? What is the importance of Pearls teaching Stevie to read using his own stories? How are the Dublin setting and Pearls studies related to the power of language and literature?
9. Maria is the daughter of a wealthy businessman and Joseph the son of his housekeeper. How have these class differences affected both characters? Does their social status hinder them or propel them to action? How does living in Dublin awaken Pearls social and class consciousness?
10. Discuss the various types of relationships in the novel and explain what defines them: parentchild; adultchild; friendfriend; doctorpatient; masterservant; malefemale; teacherstudent.
11. Explain the significance of art and beauty in Pearl. How has Joseph compromised himself and his aesthetic sense by taking over Mr. Meyerss religious art business?
12. Joseph is a reserved, responsible, successful businessman and a good friend to Maria and Pearl. Explain his dual outbursts at the close of the novel–at dinner with Maria and in the hospital with Pearl. Is this excess of emotion in line with his personality, or is it the result of exhaustion and anxiety?
13. Discuss the fine line between captivity and freedom. What stifles the various characters–other people, external circumstances, innate personality traits? Is any character free? How has Maria both confined and freed her daughter by raising her to be both independent and dependent? How has Devorahs gift and Josephs devotion to her both inspired and enslaved her? How has duty and responsibility restrained Joseph from reaching his potential?
14. What are the various views of death represented in the novel? Do any of the characters accept and/or understand death? What is the importance of death in Pearl? How would you answer Pearls question, “Why is it that its life we want?”
15. In your view, what is the final message of Pearl?