When writer Mary Gordon was 7, her father died. "I've always thought that was the most important thing anyone could know about me," she wrote in "The Shadow Man," her memoir about her dad, which was published to great acclaim 11 years ago.
Not surprisingly, Gordon idolized her missing father, who had called her a genius and told her he "loved her more than God." Then in her 40s, she discovered that "the untouched figure of romance" had lied about almost every aspect of his life – from his date and place of birth to his first marriage and stepson. In addition, there was the soft-porn magazine he ran and articles he wrote in support of Mussolini and Franco. Perhaps most difficult for his daughter to wrap her head around were the virulently anti-Semitic passages written by a Lithuanian Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult.
There was no way for Gordon to discuss her findings with her mother, who had been diagnosed with senile dementia and was living in a nursing home. For her, it was like losing both parents at the same time. Now, Gordon has written Circling My Mother, a memoir about her mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon, trying to recapture the woman of her youth, before alcoholism and dementia had rendered her unrecognizable to her only child.
Certainly, Gordon doesn't uncover any shocking revelations about her mother, but that is not the only respect in which "The Shadow Man" is a superior work. "I had hoped to tell not only the story of my mother's life, but a larger story, a story that had implications beyond her immediate biography. My mother's story is a story of physical affliction (polio, alcoholism, senile dementia), and of a historical moment importantly colored by the experience of immigration, world war, and the Great Depression."
As a record of that historical moment, "Circling My Mother" has some valuable contributions to offer. But, precisely because Gordon defines her mother so strongly by her physical afflictions, she's never able to give readers a fully realized portrait. There's a crucial failure of empathy, which may also stem from the fact that Gordon never succeeds in moving out of the spotlight long enough to let it shine on her mother.
Take the opening chapter. Gordon begins with her visit to an exhibition on French painter Pierre Bonnard, congratulating herself on the fact that she's so moved by visual art that it's a religious experience. Her mother, Gordon writes, never went to museums.
If so, this begs the question: Why on earth is Bonnard given pride of place in a memoir about Anna? This happens throughout the book – Gordon makes choices that reflect more about herself than her mother. Which is a shame. Because the glimpses we get of Anna are of a tough, funny woman who grappled with physical challenges her whole life; supported a daughter on her own; and, before her marriage, paid the mortgage on her parents' home and put her siblings through school.
Gordon spends pages detailing her revulsion at her mother's physical decline. (She uses the term "rot.") One assumes Gordon thinks readers will admire her unflinching honesty. Instead, she comes off as shallow.
For example, when talking about her parents' largely unhappy marriage, she goes so far as to wonder how her dad could have loved her mother's "misshapen body, misshapen to the point of being distressful to look at, perhaps even grotesque" – a result of childhood polio. One could only wish – both for Gordon and her mother – a more generous judgment than that.
There's also an unhealthy air coming from the chapters on Gordon's maternal family. Gordon only loved one of her aunts, she tells us, and she goes after the others (long dead) for past cruelties with a vindictiveness only sharpened by time.
It's actually a comfort to readers when Gordon turns her focus from her immediate family to the era in which they lived. As a sociological portrait of a working class Catholic family in the 1940s and '50s, "Circling My Mother" excels.
There are other bright spots: stories of her mother's pride in her job as a legal secretary, the pilgrimages she would make to visit favorite priests, and her love of the great American songbook. "When I think of my mother happy, she is singing," Gordon writes.
In the end, Gordon returns, unfortunately, to Bonnard. She also devotes a chapter to the history of her mother's favorite perfume, Arpege, which has its own unhappy mother-daughter story. But these choices can't wholly obscure the pathos of Gordon walking down the street wearing Arpege, sniffing her own arm, trying to recapture the smell of her mother when she was young and strong and easier to love.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.