There Your Heart Lies is a story that raises more questions than it answers. Author Mary Gordon is challenging her readers to think more deeply about loss of faith and faith in spite of religion. This is the story of Marian Taylor, a daughter of privilege who grew up in a rigidly Catholic family, a family with no heart, compassion, or space for her brother Johnny. When Johnny’s homosexuality was discovered the family had him arrested and institutionalized where shock therapy and drugs would “cure” him by erasing him. He killed himself.
Marian rejected her family, married Johnny’s lover Russell, and headed with him to work to aid the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Internecine battles between the Communists, Anarchists, and the Russians supporting the government disillusion them, though Marian stays on after Russell leaves. It is there she finds love and friendship, including forming a strong friendship with Isabel and Tomás. Isabel hates the church for its siding with the rich before and during the war, for its bloodlust and murderous violence against the revolution. Tomás is a priest who takes a shocking action to avoid complicity in the repression of the church.
The story alternates between Marian in Spain, during and after the war and 92 year old Marian in Rhode Island with her granddaughter Amelia who is asking her to tell the story of her life and who makes a pilgrimage, of sorts, to Spain in her grandmother’s footsteps.
I enjoyed There Your Heart Lies because it provokes a lot of questions. However, several of the characters were caricatures. The Taylor family, father and brother Vincent have no complexity, neither does Pilar nor Ignacio. They are flatly fanatical, unsympathetic and awful people, made awful by their faith. This is a story as old as religion itself. I think Parker Molloy said it best, “people who claim that their bigotry is shaped by their religious beliefs are actually shaping their religious beliefs through their existing, prejudiced worldview.”
But, then there is Tomás who is a saint in the sense of San Manuel Bueno, Mártir, that conflicted, doubting priest who Miguel de Unamuno used to realize and popularize his ideas in Del sentimiento trágico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life). His struggle complicates the wholesale condemnation of Catholicism. She is unflinching in showing that ideology functions like faith, that the Communists and Anarchists find themselves using their ideology with as much inhumanity as the Fascists and the Catholics. Marian is non-ideological, her devotion is to service, it’s more pragmatic. Is her argument that faith–religious or political–drowns out decency? Tomás has a lot of indecency to counterbalance for one character.
The other weakness in the story is that Marian tells her granddaughter about life in Spain and then the rest of her life, her marriage and children and her more recent lover are more or less summed up with a “happily ever after” short shrift, as though happy families are boring. They are not. Those questions of faith and service would continue to be part of life…but we don’t learn about that. The granddaughter, too, seems more a vehicle for Marian’s history to be told. In some ways, her existence is just a way to get us to happily ever after.
Nonetheless, this is a story that is going to insist on you thinking, weighing your own values. And that’s always a good thing. I should note that Mary Gordon has long wrestled with Catholicism, most particularly with the role of women in the church.
There Your Heart Lies will be released May 9th. I was provided an e-galley by the publisher through First to Read.
- There Your Heart Lies at Penguin Random House
- Mary Gordon author site
- Mary Gordon on Bill Moyers’ Faith and Reason