by Mary Gordon

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375423581
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/18/2005
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 877,951
File size: 443 KB

About the Author

Mary Gordon’s novels include Pearl, Spending, The Company of Women, The Rest of Life, and The Other Side. She is also the author of the memoir The Shadow Man, among other works of non-fiction. She has received a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 1997 O. Henry Award for best story. She teaches at Barnard College and lives in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

December 8, 1949

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Barnard College, 1971; M.A., Syracuse University, 1973

Read an Excerpt

We may as well begin with the ride home.

It is Christmas night, 1998. The ending of a day that was not unseasonable, except in its failure to fulfill the sentimental wish for spur-of-the moment snow. The sky: gray; the air: cold, with a high of 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Palpable winter but not winter at its worst. Fewer of the poor than usual died on that day of causes traceable to the weather. Perhaps the relatively unimpressive showing of weather-related deaths was due to the relative clemency of the air, the relative windlessness, the relative benevolence that could be counted on by the poor to last, perhaps, eight days, December twenty-fourth through the first of January.

Ten o'clock Christmas night. Four friends drive south on the way home after a day of celebration. They have had Christmas dinner at the house of other friends, a weekend and vacation house in the mountains north of New York. One couple sits in the front of a brown Honda Accord, the other in the back. They are all in their fifties. All of their children are on other continents: one in Brazil, working on an irrigation project; one in Japan, teaching English; one in Ireland studying the Irish language at Trinity College. They were determined not to have a melancholy Christmas, and for the most part they have not.

They leave Maria Meyers off first since she lives in the most northerly part of the city or, as they would say, the farthest uptown.

She opens the door of her apartment on the sixth or top floor of a building on the corner of La Salle Street and Claremont Avenue, a block west of Broadway, a block south of 125th Street, on the margins of Harlem, at the tip end of the force field of Columbia University. Before she takes off her brown boots lined with tan fur, her green down coat, her rose-colored scarf, her wool beret, also rose, she sees the red light of her answering machine.

Her heart lifts. She reads the red light as a message from her daughter, who has not, after all, forgotten to call on Christmas. She probably thought her mother would be home all day; Christmas has never been spent anywhere but at home.

In the darkness, seeing with clarity one thing only, the blinking red light that means her daughter's voice, Maria knows that when she flips the light switch she will be illumining a place nothing like the house she grew up in. Purposely, deliberately unlike. Walls painted orange-yellow. Woven fabrics from Guatemala, carved wooden angels--green and pink--from Poland, and from Cambodia a tin demon, her protector.

She drapes her coat, her hat, her scarf over the chair covered with a slipcover the color of a green apple. She sits on the footrest in front of it, on woven triangles of magenta, cobalt, rust. She takes off her boots, which made her feet so uncomfortably overheated in the car. She is greedy for the sound of her daughter's voice, her greed a tooth that bites down hard. Her stocking feet are slippery on the pine floor. She'd been more hurt than she wanted to admit that Pearl hadn't returned her call, hadn't made contact before she left for the countryside. But that was what she wanted, wasn't it? A daughter who did not feel obligated, who felt free to pursue her life, her interests, her pleasures, her adventures. She'd imagined Pearl sitting in a basement kitchen around a table of students toasting one another with cheap red wine, filling plate after plate with spaghetti they had made together. Or maybe it wasn't spaghetti; she didn't know what cheap meal Irish students chose to celebrate their liberation from the domestic cliche of family Christmas. Pearl had said she would be with friends. No one's family? Maria had said. "I don't know anyone's family here," Pearl had said, and Maria had thought, Well, that is being young.

But it is not her daughter's voice she hears on the answering machine. It is a strange voice, a woman's voice, a voice with a southern accent.

"This is the State Department in Washington. We're looking for Maria Meyers, the mother of Pearl Meyers. This is an emergency. You can call toll-free."


The word makes Maria believe she has lived her life all wrong. The familiar walls, the furniture of the apartment are threatening to her, offer her no comfort.

State Department. The official world. Run by men like her father. And where is her father now? She wants her father, dead twenty-four years, dying thousands of miles away from her, estranged. She says the word: Father. Then tries to unsay it. She tells herself to be calm. She breathes in and out, the breathing technique she learned for giving birth. She focuses her dislike on the voice on the machine--what kind of voice is that for the State Department?--and the name of the person she is supposed to call: Lynne Craig. Lynne Craig?

She tells herself she has never liked anyone named Lynne. What kind of name is that for a diplomat? If you were expecting a serious future for your daughter, would you name her Lynne?

Her daughter's name has always been something she was proud of. She always relished people's surprise when they heard it.

What's the baby's name?


A disappointed look. Wanting to say, That's no name for a baby, people would say, "Unusual."

"It's my mother's name," Maria would say.

Then people would say, "Oh, yes, of course." Forgiving her for something.

A toll-free number. As if paying the toll would prevent someone's making a call to the State Department when they'd been told it was an emergency. She tries to imagine a person for whom a toll-free number would, in such circumstances, make a difference. She cannot. She loses confidence in the ability of someone who would invent such a procedure to save her child. This frightens her: she cannot trust the people who are said to be in charge. And, unusually for her, Maria does not know what to do.

She dials the number. The tone beeps. She tries to imagine the State Department. She sees official buildings but they could be anywhere, in any city, at any time since the mid-nineteenth century. She sees her young self and her friends demonstrating in front of such buildings in the 1960s. In those dark years, the people in the buildings had been the enemy. Now they are her only hope. Therefore they are dear to her. Therefore she hates them. They know something, possibly unbearable, that she does not know. Something about her daughter. Something she needs to know.

She gets, on the fifth ring, Lynne Craig.

"Mrs. Meyers--"

"It's Ms. I'm not married."

This is the kind of woman Maria is. She has heard the word emergency, and yet she insists on not being misnamed. She is not married; she wants to make that clear. No husband for a second opinion. She is a person who believes it is one of her strengths: making things clear.

"Yes, well, Ms. Meyers, ma'am, we have a bit of a situation over there in Dublin. A little bit of an unusual situation that your daughter's gotten herself involved in."

"Is she all right?"

"Well, we hope she will be."

"What exactly do you mean by that?"

"Well, as I said, your daughter's gotten herself into a little bit of an unusual situation. She's chained herself to the flagpole in front of the American embassy in Dublin. She says she hasn't eaten in six weeks, and she's refusing food and drink."

"Why is she doing it?" Maria knows she must try to understand. If there is a logical progression, it will be comprehensible. Therefore, some action can be begun.

"Well, at first, Ms. Meyers, because it's Dublin and because of the particular situation over there with the Irish politics and all, we supposed she was involved with the IRA. You know, there's a group that's very opposed to the peace treaty that's being worked out, very vocal about their opposition, more than vocal in some cases. But this doesn't seem to be the case with your daughter--IRA involvement, I mean. She wrote a statement that she left on the ground by where she's lying. It's a bit confusing, Ms. Meyers. We think she's doing what she's doing because some young boy died and she considers herself responsible. And then she's in favor of the peace treaty; she says her act is in witness to it. We can't make much sense of this, and she won't talk. Now she's written a letter to you and another to a Mr. Kasperman. It says personal and confidential, but if you were willing we could read it to you now."

"She's getting medical help?"


"In that case, we must respect her wishes. If the letters are confidential, it means they're for our eyes only. Mr. Kasperman is an old friend of the family. Just take the proper medical steps and wait for me to get there."

"Yes, ma'am, whatever you say. Does she have any history of mental instability?"

"Of course not."

"Well, Ms. Meyers, as this is a kind of unusual situation, we'd have to ask that kind of question. Any political involvement?"

"As long as I've known her she's been only marginally aware of politics. She's interested in language. She's studying linguistics. She's in Ireland to study the Irish language."

"Yes, ma'am. Well, you see, she has some connections there that are of some concern. There's a young man, a kind of involvement, who has interests, connections, with certain radical groups. But they all seem to disavow any connection with what your daughter's doing. They say it's just the isolated act of a disturbed individual."

"My daughter is not disturbed. She's in danger, and I'd like to know what you're doing about it."

"Well, right at the moment, ma'am, we're trying to be in dialogue with her. But she doesn't seem very receptive. I'll tell you the truth, ma'am: she's very weak, and we're afraid of injuring her if she resists when we try to remove the chains by force. She's chained her wrists, you see. So we're sort of hoping she'll remove the chains herself."

"Isn't it cold there?"

"Yes, ma'am, we have some concerns about that. They seem to be taking measures; I think some heaters have been set up. But our greatest concern is that she won't drink. You know, they can survive this kind of thing without eating, but the drinking's crucial. We're worried about dehydration. We've set up heaters around her so she's warm. She can't stop us doing that."

"Then get the chains off without hurting her."

"That seems to be the problem right now. She's resisting us pretty strongly there. We're trying to avoid force. Of course, if she gets much weaker, she won't be able to resist."

Maria doesn't know what to hope for: that her daughter will weaken enough so she can't resist or that she will retain her strength. How is it possible to wish that your child will weaken? Yet she knows that is what she must do, if only she knew how to form the wish. She has never had this experience before; she has always known exactly what to wish for. She has often believed that her wishes would be granted or that, if not, she would be able to live with their having been refused. But now she does not know how she must live. Or how she would live if anything should happen to her daughter. Her daughter who is in danger now.

"We were hoping you might have some kind of leverage if you were on-site."

"I'll be on the next plane."

"I've taken the liberty of booking you a seat; I'm afraid there's only first class left on the six p.m. flight tomorrow. And I've taken the liberty of booking you a hotel, the Tara Arms. Any cab at the airport will know it. Of course, you'll want to stop by the embassy first. Speak to Miss Caroline Wolf."

Maria wants to vomit, as if, opening her mouth, the horror of what she's heard might spill out as in a medieval allegory: a sinner spewing out devils, sin.

But she can't waste time thinking of herself as a figure of allegory. Her daughter is in danger. Her daughter is doing something she doesn't understand. She can't even form a picture. Why can't they remove the chains? Maria is an impatient woman, and not being able to understand has always made her feel trapped, suffocated. She wants to claw against this incomprehension. She wants to make Lynne Craig say something that will allow her to understand. So, although she doesn't want to hear her voice anymore, she asks another question. In case it will unlock something.

"First class?" she says.

"I'm afraid that's all that's available. The flight leaves JFK at six p.m. tomorrow night."

Tomorrow night. Six p.m. First class. Thousands of dollars. Nineteen hours.

She packs her bag.

Maria waits until midnight, when it is 6 a.m. in Rome, to call Joseph Kasperman, her oldest friend. Joseph Kasperman, to whom Pearl addressed the other letter.

And now I will tell you the story of Joseph and Maria. Your first thought might be that they are lovers. Having learned they are not, you might imagine they are blood relations: perhaps brother and sister. They are neither lovers nor blood relatives, they are friends. More than friends. Neither has a memory of life without the other. And what is a life without the memory of a life?

Joseph's mother was housekeeper to Maria and her father, Maria's mother having died before Maria was two years old and Joseph's father having abandoned him and his mother before Joseph reached his first birthday. Two half-orphans, brought up together: a tie not of blood or sex, a tie of friendship. Friendship from the start of memory. Joseph cannot forget that he is the son of a servant. Maria almost never thinks of it.

Maria has a little Italian, enough to ask for Mr. Kasperman in the hotel Santa Chiara, where she has stayed many times, first with her father, then with her father and Joseph, then with Joseph and his wife, Devorah, most recently with Joseph and Pearl. Now Joseph is there alone. Devorah and her father are dead. She will not allow herself to think that Pearl might be dying.

Joseph answers the phone, and she tells him what Lynne Craig said. How she dislikes Lynne Craig, how she dislikes the State Department and its toll-free number, how she dislikes having to depend on the State Department for anything. Particularly anything important.

"Why is she doing it?" Joseph asks.

"It's something about a boy who died, whose death she feels responsible for. And something about being a witness to the importance of the peace treaty."

Reading Group Guide

“Enthralling. . . . A demanding and rewarding brainy-brawny novel that complicates our understanding of the world instead of coarsening it.” –The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Mary Gordon’s Pearl, an extraordinary novel about the power of language and the tragic limitations of love.

1. How does Maria’s Catholic background inform her thought processes, despite her adamant rejection of the Church? What specific childhood event initiated the erosion of her love affair with Catholicism? How does the narrator explain Maria’s sudden flashback to “the terms of her childhood . . . fast, abstinence, sin, virtue” [p. 259] after she is chastised by Joseph? Is Maria able to identify her reaction with the same clarity?

2. The concept of naming looms large throughout the novel. Maria “insists on not being misnamed” even during an emergency [p. 6]; the narrator refers to him/herself as “present at the naming” [p. 13]; Bobby Sands starves himself to death over Thatcher’s refusal to classify him as a political prisoner, “a name she thought incorrect” [p. 29]; Breeda is thought of by the boys as “someone’s sister, someone’s mother, a body without a name” [p. 146]; Pearl feels she has been “misnamed” when a doctor refers to her as a suicide [p. 202]. What does the author suggest about the power inherent in the act of naming–or misnaming–another human being? Is this a particularly Judeo-Christian concept, or does it transcend cultural boundaries? What is the significance of Pearl’s name and of the novel being named for her?

3. Pearl’s strike is distinct from previous hunger strikes in Ireland in that “the hunger strikers hoped against hope that they would be stopped. . . . Pearl doesn’t want to stop; she wants her death for its own sake, as a release from being overwhelmed” [p. 20]. In this light, does Pearl’s action read as self-absorbed? How is the reader’s view of Pearl affected by the opinions of characters like the medical resident who comments, “This kind of anorexia is always a disease of the affluent” [p. 224], and Mick who remarks, “As theater what [Pearl] did was very potent” [p. 292]? What does Stevie mean when he tells Maria that Pearl “deliberately misled us” [p. 282]?

4. Joseph thinks of himself as a failure, a weakling, and a generally ineffectual, disappointed human being. Yet Maria feels that “she has only to be near him to be safe” [p. 204]. What is the source of this disconnect?

5. Pearl is enchanted by Ireland because, unlike the United States, she sees it as a place “where things were serious and people knew what was important and would say it. In Ireland, Pearl felt for the first time that she was a part of history. In America, history had no meaning for her. She could never see herself as part of American history” [p. 27]. Is this a common perception among young people in America? What cultural forces, or lack thereof, might contribute to this attitude? What Irish social mores encourage engagement in a sense of place and history?

6. What does Ya-Katey mean when he states, “I fear purity; I fear it very much; it is a dangerous idea. . . . The mess is our only hope against the tyranny of the pure” [p. 95]? To Maria, the word purity connotes the “wonderful feeling . . . of being whole, of being entirely one thing, and that thing only” [p. 96] that she achieved as a child on the day of her First Communion. Why does she keep this memory secret from Ya-Katey? What sort of purity does Maria seek as an adult? What does purity mean to Pearl and to Joseph?

7. What sort of backdrop does the Tara Arms Hotel form for Maria and Joseph’s excruciating waiting game? What social or cultural information is conveyed by the physical details of the place? Why does it affect Joseph to the extent that “seeing those carpets, and the dingy wallpaper with its pattern of olive-colored reeds, he feels despair for the world. And more: a sense of deep estrangement” [p. 205]?

8. What is the significance of “the form of the chronicle” that the narrator adopts on page 39? What point does the author/narrator make about the ramifications of familial history and the act of storytelling? Could the novel succeed without this extensive background information?

9. Of Breeda and the peace agreement vote, the narrator says, “We forget that there are moments, public moments, what could be called moments in history that change a life. By we I mean those of us who have been brought up, as Pearl had been, in safety and prosperity, whose lives have been shaped by private moments, private acts” [p. 157]. What is implied about the reader by the narrator’s use of the words we and those of us? What effect is achieved through the narrator’s assumption of solidarity with the reader? What particular biases does the narrator weave into the stories of Maria, Pearl, and Joseph? Does this narrator play favorites among the characters?

10. Joseph is keenly aware of the fact that his mother was a servant to Maria’s father and seems to believe that this truth forms an inevitable barrier between him and Maria. Is he right, or is he paranoid? Is Maria’s memory equally ingrained with this dichotomy?

11. Maria’s reaction to the possibility of Pearl’s death reads like an angry mother-goddess mantra: “I will consume your wish to die. You cannot resist me. You won’t win. Having once come from my body, you will bend to my superior, my far more ancient will–not only mine but every mother’s throughout history. You will succumb and once again be more mine than your own” [p. 192]. What lesson does Pearl suggest about this kind of mother love?

12. Is Pearl responsible for Stevie’s death?

13. How does the narrator build tension into the dinner scene after Maria and Joseph meet with Hazel Morrisey? What is the real content behind Joseph’s enigmatic rebuff, “You’ve had enough butter. . . . You’ve had more than enough” [p. 258]? How does Maria’s decision to continue eating–“It’s simple, she says to herself. I should eat. Food brings strength. I require strength. Therefore food” [p. 260]–highlight and contrast with Pearl’s thoughts about eating? Is this episode intended to turn the reader against Maria?

14. Is it useful to read Pearl as a reflection of the Christ story, with Maria in the role of Mary, Joseph as the eponymous surrogate father, Ya-Katey the progenitor who makes a brief visitation, and Pearl as the sacrificial lamb who accepts death in a gesture of atonement, only to be later resurrected? In this scheme, the phrase, “[Pearl] has worked at emptying herself” [p. 102], reflects Philippians 2:7 in which Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” And when Pearl decides to witness Stevie’s death, “The stone slab that had pressed her down . . . was thrown up with the force of her new rising” [p. 174], hints at Easter. What other references support this reading of the novel? What point could the author be making in alluding to the New Testament story?

15. What does it reveal about Joseph that “he believed that a poem about a garden or a painting of a garden was greater than a garden itself” [p. 123]?

16. Pearl’s goal is “to make a sentence of herself, to make of her life one sentence that she knows to be true” [p. 84]. What does Pearl suggest about both the inadequacy of words amidst violence and the power of words to redeem?

17. Why does Joseph see the vision of Maria and Pearl holding hands as “a misleading beauty” [p. 310]?

18. Pearl asks big questions: “What is knowing? What can be known, really known? . . . What is living? How do you understand a life?” [p. 231]; “What is the relation between love and appetite?” [p. 261]; “If you were forgiven, could you still be unforgivable?” [p. 326]; “What did it mean, to face life? What was the face?” [p. 338]; “When the sufferer is suffering, isn’t it an eternal present, like the mind of God?” [p. 218]; “Why do we want life?” [p. 340] What do these heady topics contribute to the story? Does the novel provide answers to any of these questions?

19. What happens to Devorah’s passion for singing? How does Devorah’s story shed light on the three central characters?

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