Subtitled "A Daughter's Search for Her Father," this memoir chronicles author Mary Gordon's quest to recapture the essence that was her father, a man she idolized and adored while he was alive--and long after his death when she was only seven years old. This death she saw as the single most defining event of her life. Identification with her father was essential to the conception of self, both as a creative writer, and as a worthwhile person. So she "entered the cave of memory" but found that memory was discordant with the facts.

Gordon's father was a writer, and a convert from Judaism to Catholicism. His persona was that of an intellectual, a graduate of Harvard, a frequenter of literary circles in Oxford and Paris. He claimed to be an only child, born in Ohio. As Gordon explores her memory and the historical record, forcing herself to confront her father's political opinions--opinions which are repugnant to her, and which she had earlier chosen to ignore--she uncovers a charade.

Her father, it turns out, was an immigrant from Vilna (in Eastern Europe) and had never finished high school. He had two sisters whom he never acknowledged to his family--one spent years in a mental institution where she ultimately died. Among his published writings are pornography and political diatribe (he was an anti-Semite and a facist); his writing was stylistically flawed.

This memoir is Mary Gordon's attempt to come to terms with what she learned about her father. It is the narrative deconstruction and reconstruction of the author's self; it is both biography and autobiography; a reflection on loss and recovery.


This is a rich and beautifully written memoir. Among many relevant issues raised are the enduring impact on a young child--both emotional and in terms of changed circumstances-- of a beloved parent's death; parent-child relationships that endure way beyond the grave, and the need we have "to make peace with [our] parents"; the important role that fathers may play in the aspirations and achievements of daughters.

There is also Gordon's (successful) attempt to reach an empathic understanding of what motivated her father to reject and deny his own history. She gives him voice by constructing a fictional monologue for him--more honest than the stories he told about himself. In the process we gain insight into the immigrant experience as well.

The remarkable section in part V, "My Mother is Speaking from the Desert," stands on its own. Gordon writes about her current and past relationship with her mother, now aging and afflicted with severe memory loss. She can be of little help in reconstructing the person who was the author's father. Another loss.

It is a shock (because it is not mentioned until so late into the book) to learn that Gordon's childhood was further marred; when Gordon was twelve her mother deteriorated into alcoholism and became "a blubbing, slobbering mess. A mess I had to clean up." Then too, there is the mother's long-standing disability from polio, and the practical annoyances, shame, and guilt this generated in her daughter. But this mother was also once the mainstay of Gordon's life, a woman of beauty, wit, and daring.

Gordon raises profound questions with which we all must grapple. What narratives do we construct about ourselves and our parents, to establish selfhood and to deal with loss? How do adults re-define their roles in the family structure, and reconcile themselves to the real and figurative demise of childhood parental heroes and villains? How does one take on the role of caregiver for one's own parent(s)?


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count