Mary Gordon’s wrenching novel of the Spanish Civil War and family secrets that ripple throughout generations is deceptive: each time you expect to settle into one kind of story, whether one of the horrors of war or a more intimate family epic, you are pulled to another. Thankfully, Gordon threads this needle perfectly. There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moral novel that never moralizes; it’s a profound novel absent of profundities; it’s a novel as lovely as it is piercing, and not to be missed.
Read my full review below.
There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon
- publisher: Pantheon Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
- publication date: May 9, 2017
- isbn: 978-0-307-90794-3
- length: 336 pages
When this book appeared in my Friday Bookbag over a month ago, I wrote about how off-put I was by the book’s “Millennial vs. Greatest Generation” jacket copy. The novel follows Marian Taylor, privileged daughter of an Irish Catholic family, who seeks to break her family’s cycle of cruelty by disowning herself and fleeing to 1937 Spain to aid in the effort to quell Franco’s (ultimately successful) fascist rebellion. The novel also jumps 70 years ahead to follow Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, who knows nothing of this history when she moves in to take care of a dying Marian.
To hear the jacket copy tell it, you’d think this was a novel about Marian schooling Amelia about what real problems are like, but thankfully, Gordon’s moral compass is much subtler and truer than that. At the center of There Your Heart Lies are questions of what it means to be a good person and of what it means to renounce privilege–and of whether the latter is ever possible at all.
Despite my generational trepidations, I picked up this novel because of my own interest in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, both rapidly forgotten in the chaos of World War II and in the United States’ own anti-communist fervor. (The Republican government overthrown by Franco was left-wing, socialist if not outright communist.) I was not disappointed by Gordon’s treatment of the material, and can say without a shadow of doubt that There Your Heart Lies is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, especially in its weaving-in with the present day.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the novel, particularly in our current political climate, is its refusal to cave to the sort of moral relativism that forgives homophobia, racism, fascism, and other evils by claiming its perpetrators were products of their time who couldn’t possibly have known better. Gordon sharply rebukes this by imbuing Marian and Amelia with an admirable moral fiber independent of their eras.
The tension in the novel doesn’t come from the reader wondering whether or not Amelia and especially Marian will do the right thing–we know they will–but rather from how they will do good works, how they will prioritize the good that must be done, and how they will survive the toll that being a good person in a corrupt world takes.
If that makes the novel sound unbearably moralistic, I can promise it’s not. The effect is more like complex optimism: we see the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through Marian’s eyes, and then Spain’s more peaceful present through Amelia. We see terrible abuses committed in the name of Catholicism, but also the fragile hope present in Catholic rituals. We see Marian’s gay brother go through painful shock treatments that culminate in his suicide (the catalyst for Marian’s rebellion), but we also see the tender queer love between Marian’s best friends in the modern day, a lesbian couple who fled Germany during the Holocaust.
It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel as ambitious as this one–one that asks ambitious questions, plays within an ambitious setting full of rich historical detail, and juggles two ambitiously good characters that are still, somehow, flawed and not saints.
Wise, then, that Gordon doesn’t attempt heroic feats of language, although the writing is beautiful. Her prose is relatively simple, but the story she tells is not. I turned the final page feeling as hopeful as I felt sad. Sad that we have still not learned the lessons of the past; hopeful that we will edge ever closer, day by day, to justice. 5/5 stars.
My copy of There Your Heart Lies came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.