Photo: Marshall Troy

4 of 16
There Your Heart Lies
336 pages; Pantheon
A satirical novel predicts a win for Luddites. Look for the common threads in Mary Gordon's fiction since her 1978 debut, Final Payments, and you'll discern the entwined strands of earthly and spiritual passion. Her radiant latest, There Your Heart Lies, revisits this theme, but with the rich maturity of a writer who grasps that destiny is shaped by geography, politics and circumstance.

Gordon's protagonist, American heiress Marian Taylor, defies her status-conscious Manhattan parents by enlisting as a nurse during the Spanish Civil War. The novel then shifts back and forth between Marian's early storm of adventures—the carnage she witnesses on the battlefield, the men she loves—and Rhode Island in 2009. Now in her 90s, Marian is pressed by her granddaughter, Amelia, to retrieve her long-submerged history, memories she thought she'd buried for good. "The past," Gordon writes, "doesn't come to her in a line, or even a series of images that can fit together to make a satisfying whole. Each image comes to her separately, like the bubbles in a pan of boiling water." 

In her previous work, the interplay of the erotic and the religious (Gordon as a child had considered becoming a nun, and Catholicism occupies a central role in her fiction and nonfiction) has inspired, even empowered, her female characters. But fear and dread shadow Marian near the end of her days, and only the presence of her granddaughter, the person Marian loves most in the world, with her "lovely face, always with a hint of puzzlement or surprise, like an animal lifting its head after drinking in a stream, startled," softens that pain. For Amelia, the voyage into her grandmother's life rounds out a sense of identity she hadn't even realized was incomplete. It's a bond we feel, too, as Gordon journeys deep into the hearts and minds of women, still yearning, even at the last. 
— Hamilton Cain