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 Pearl’s surrogate father), Joseph Kasperman, both rush to Pearl’s 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 Ireland’s tragic history. Pearl is a grand and emotionally daring novel of ideas, told with the tension of a thriller.
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.