» » The Other Side

Download The Other Side epub

by Mary Gordon

Other Side, The, by Gordon, Mary
Download The Other Side epub
ISBN: 0670825662
ISBN13: 978-0670825660
Category: Literature
Subcategory: United States
Author: Mary Gordon
Language: English
Publisher: Viking Adult (October 18, 1989)
Pages: 400 pages
ePUB size: 1962 kb
FB2 size: 1272 kb
Rating: 4.3
Votes: 495
Other Formats: lrf lit mbr txt

Everything in this book depends on whether or not you can stomach the protagonist, Ellen Macnamara. Ellen is an Irish girl who comes to America around 1890, marries, starts a large family. She is also cruel, selfish, consumed with rage and prone to enormous self pity. In other words, Mary Gordon is crafting a self portrait and daring the reader not to respond.

Problem is, aside from the hateful, overbearing nature of the main character, there are a lot of details that just don't ring true. Mary Gordon loves to whine about how tough the Irish had it, (toiling away in those cotton fields, being lynched, you know) yet she's so insufferably genteel that she can't bear to actually show Ellen in grinding poverty. So Ellen works as a "seamstress" and finds employment with a very wealthy Irish family. Problem is, even there, Mary can't seem to hit the right note of persecution. The lady of the house asks Ellen to help her with some sewing, and says something like, "here, sit down and help me with this sewing, and while you do it, tell me something about your life." Supposed to be cruel and overbearing, but comes across as gracious and rather sweet. And this was as bad as it got for Ellen? No wonder she's mean all the time! Uh, I am not convinced. I never bought her as poor, angry, or in any way representative of the huddled masses.

Later on, Ellen gets work in a "sweatshop" (though she never seems to sweat) and makes friends with a -- gasp! -- Jewish girl. No Italians or Poles for Barnard Mary -- oh no. Well, okay, so the Jewish girl and the Irish girl meet, at the sweatshop, and it's love at first sight. Problem is, the two hold elegant conversations in Barnard English, chatting about Jane Austen and so on. Something tells me that two working girls in New York in 1910 would have less than perfect diction. Ellen should have a brogue you could cut and the Jewish girl should have an accent all her own. But it doesn't happen. Mary wants to cry about the immigrant experience . . . but she doesn't want to experience it.

Through the years, the unreality grows. Ellen becomes a feared and respected matriarch, ruling over a miserable clan she tyrannizes with her razor sharp tongue. Supposedly. But when the police come to the door to reprimand her for keeping chickens in the yard, she crushes the young patrolman with a feeble crack like "I remember when you and my Johnny used to climb apple trees together." Wow! Move over, Don Rickles. Ellen just never comes to life as a tyrant, a rebel, or anything else Mary Gordon wants her to be.

Not only does Mary Gordon never make Ellen real, she never deals with any of the more unpleasant sides of the Irish character. Racism, anti-semitism, violence against outsiders, none of these things are even hinted at. Mary wants it both ways -- the Irish are victims, out of place in America, yet somehow they rise to wealth and respectability without ever getting their hands dirty.

Back in 1989, Mary actually lowered herself to appearing on the TODAY show to promote this dog, and I remember her saying that she wasn't interested in the "mini-series" version of the immigrant experience. But it's not clear why this book is any better. It's not more insightful, there is no self-criticism, and the characters aren't especially charismatic.

But at least Ellen speaks correct, Barnard English.
The best test of a novel is does it stay with you or does it disappear like so much morning mist. It has been several years since I read this book, but I find myself thinking of it often. My wife and I have discussed the ending a number of times often in sharp disagreement. However, as we have grown older and gained more life experience, the story has become truer, if not less painful, and a favorite of both of ours. It is Mary Gordon's best work which is high praise.