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When priests were like movie stars ... and generals


There Your Heart Lies

By Mary Gordon


320 pages, $26.95

Author Mary Gordon’s long preoccupation with the Roman Catholic Church – and its historic stumbling blocks – suffuses her latest novel, “There Your Heart Lies.”

Introspective, and often indignant, this is both a treatise on the 1930s’ Spanish Civil War that propelled General Francisco Franco to the top – and a parable featuring an idealistic young American who puts herself into the fray only to find, by the book’s end, seven decades later, that it is a tale almost too wrenching, and complex, to share with her granddaughter.

"Now when you hear ‘priest,’ the first word that comes to your mind is probably ‘pedophile,’” 92-year-old Marian (nee Taylor) says to that 24-year-old granddaughter, Amelia. “But at that time, both in Spain and in the world I grew up in – I mean the part of it that was Catholic – even though it was America, priests were like movie stars and generals and Supreme Court justices."

Mothers wanted nothing more than for their sons to be priests. People deferred to them, they listened to them, even though a lot of them were fools or drunks or bigots…That kind of power, that kind of glamour, has to be corrupting. Some of them, a few of them, actually were what they were supposed to be, ‘servants of the servants of God’…but most of them were spoiled and harsh and not very bright… .”

Marian, Gordon suggests, has reason to be disparaging of the Catholic Church: It was indirectly-but-clearly responsible for the suicide of her beloved gay older brother Johnny, its condemnation of homosexuality causing their father to have Johnny arrested, then committed to a psychiatric institution for shock treatment – in an effort “to save his soul.”

“Life is not good enough for me to live it,” Johnny will write in his farewell letter to Marian – whose response, at 19, is to drop out of Vassar, forsake her privileged Park Avenue upbringing and plunge headlong into a sham marriage to the late Johnny’s Jewish lover, Dr. Russell Rabinowitz.

(“Don’t risk eternity to make a point against me and the rest of the family,” her father says before disowning her.)

“There Your Heart Lies” – which takes its title from the Sermon on the Mount – opens as the newlyweds sail to Spain aboard the SS Normandie, their mission to help “save the world from fascism.” They are optimistic and feel qualified: Russell is a physician and card-carrying Communist – and Marian, who spent part of her childhood in Argentina, is the recent compiler of a Spanish-English dictionary of medical terms.

On the ship, they “rail against (the Catholic Church) almost as much as they rail against capitalism,” Gordon writes. “’Crush’ is the word they use most often. Everything the Catholic Church wants to ‘crush,’ Unions, democracy, freedom of thought. See who they are in Spain: the handmaid of the fascists, urging from the pulpit that reds be killed, tortured in the name of the Church… .”

Alternating mainly between Spain in the 1930s and 40s – and small, picaresque Avondale, R.I., in 2009 – the novel is at its best abroad, Marian and Russell arriving in Spain to find a ravaged Barcelona: “children wandering a bombed-out city looking for parents, old people looking dazed, carrying all of their possessions in a tied-up tablecloth … There are barricades everywhere. The streets are full of rubble … .”

Cafes are full of arguers (“everyone talks of people they have seen killed: anarchists killing communists, communists killing anarchists”). Marian realizes that nothing here is simple. “We are all fighting the same enemy,” she thinks. “Why, she wants to ask, why are you wasting time on what are only family squabbles?”

Work, at a hospital filled with the wounded, is dispiriting and exhausting. Marian and Russell also struggle to maintain the charade of their marriage – until Russell takes a real lover. Here the plot pivots, sending Russell in one direction and Marian in another.

Given the era, and the conditions in Spain at the time, it is foolhardy for Marian to stay in the war-torn country – but she does. To divulge more of the plot here would be unfair both to Gordon and to the reader. Suffice it to say that Marian’s decision establishes her as a woman of growing substance and provides a firm platform for Gordon’s musings on war, Catholicism and the traps inherent in the melding of church and state.

“Were you a communist?” Marian is asked at one point in the novel. “Was I? I don' t know. What I knew was that it was right to be on the side of the poor, and wrong to be on the side of the rich and the people who were being supported by Hitler and Mussolini. It all seemed very obvious: There was a good side and a bad side, and communists were on the good side.”

Was she for Stalin or Trotsky? “I didn’t have any appetite for the demand for unquestioning loyalty,” she says. “It reminded me too much of the Catholic Church."

In separate sections of the book, Marian stays with a wealthy Spanish couple completely and obsequiously wrapped up in the pomp and ceremony of the Catholic Church and all its saints – as well as a Spanish-Irish brother and sister of diverging sentiments, he one of those rare priests of the people, she a physician with little use, like Marian, for the church.

Gordon speaks in stark contrast here – black and white – even depicting young Amelia as unsure as Marian is sure (but on the cusp of change, thanks to her grandmother).  What is most striking, though, is Gordon’s continual hammering of the Catholic Church of Marian’s era not only in terms of Spain’s hold on the church – and the atrocities of war carried out in the name of God – but also the simpler Catholic traditions embraced by Marian’s father in the States, traditions embodied in his wearing of the medieval “regalia” of a Catholic Knight of Malta.

Gordon, who is a Roman Catholic, seems at times to be speaking for herself here, as if Marian’s “rage-filled aversion for the church as an institution” is her own – and a reader is struck by the full slate of old as well as existing grievances against Catholicism checked off in the book (including examples of homophobia and anti-Semitism).

In interviews, Gordon has described her own Catholicism as not one of hierarchy or institution, but of people – people like herself who, although they may have been “wounded and scandalized,” are nonetheless believers.

As for Marian, the protagonist of Gordon’s latest fine riff on the subject, “with age, she got kinder,” now much more interested in “gardening books and Trollope” than in saving the world. Yet when Marian asks herself, nearing the end of her life, who she is, really is – there is but one strong and steadfast answer: “Well, I am Johnny Taylor’s sister.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.


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