“Pearl,” Mary Gordon’s latest novel, tells the story of a family crisis. Twenty-year-old Pearl Myers is studying abroad in Ireland when her close friend, Stevie, dies partly as a result of his political involvement in the IRA. To protest his death, Pearl goes on a six-week hunger strike and chains herself to the flagpole at the American embassy in Dublin. The novel revolves around the impact of Pearl’s actions on her mother, Maria, and Joseph, Maria’s childhood friend and Pearl’s surrogate father.

The book’s main problem is its narration — “Pearl” is written in first person, yet the narrator remains nameless. The unknown narrator’s involvement in the characters’ lives frustrates the reader and unnecessarily complicates the prose. Gordon’s attempt to capitalize upon first-person narration is unsuccessful; she seems to be using the narrator to make transitions from present to past more fluid and add to the story’s cohesiveness. Instead, she achieves the opposite effect. Phrases like, “It is proper for me to begin telling this story using the strong tones of romance,” are awkward and distract the reader from the story.

Despite this major weakness, the characters are intriguing enough to keep the reader involved. The complex backstory is compelling, creating an atmosphere of intimacy for the reader. It is difficult to be indifferent to the characters’ lives, especially Pearl. She is certainly the most intriguing character in the novel — her unusual situation, her quiet unassuming nature and her compassion make her very likeable. Maria, however, is intrusive and annoying, while Joseph’s timid character does not resonate as deeply with the reader.

“Pearl” shines through its abundance of themes — Gordon does a remarkable job of weaving in multilayered issues even through the burdensome narration. She examines the relationship between parent and child, and through Pearl’s actions, raises questions of individual rights: Does Pearl have a right to starve herself? Does Maria have a right to see her? These questions lead ultimately to the larger theme of faith — in God, in family, in the human race as a whole. The profusion of religious imagery in the novel reinforces these ideas and adds complexity to its exploration of human capacities.

The thematic fortes of “Pearl,” however, are not strong enough to overcome the impediments of the weak narration and occasionally dragging plot. In the end, Pearl’s complexity is what keeps it from excellence.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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