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A review of Seeing Through Places

In a collection of eight extended personal essays, novelist Mary Gordon (Company of Women, Spending) explores the meaning of place in the life of the imagination. Gordon's intention is to compare the architecture of the physical world with the architecture of the spirit, and to draw connections between where a life is passed and how that life is enriched or crippled by surroundings. For the most part, these are poignant, evocative essays that certainly serve to deepen Gordon's sense of place in the world, though they rarely offer more than her personal insight and experience.

Of the house in the suburbs outside of New York City where the author grew up, her grandmother's house, Gordon's memories are often bleak:

My grandmother had no interest in having a good time -- that is, in doing anything that would result only in pleasure -- and her house proclaimed this, as it proclaimed everything about her. Her house was her body, and like her body, was honorable, daunting, reassuring, defended, castigating, harsh, embellished, dark.

Gordon's mother, a working woman with a demanding job that consumed most of her personal energy, was a terrible housekeeper and when the two of them eventually moved permanently into her grandmother's house, following the death of her father, theirs became a tale of benign physical neglect.

Young Mary looks early on to her father, a writer, and to his study for the kind of haven treasured in childhood -- a place to play. When her father dies, when she is only 7 years old, she looks to the house next door, a house filled with boys and a sexy, doting mother, to understand the meaning of home. Eventually, she escapes to college at Barnard in New York City, a place where she has already come to appreciate the great, monumental public buildings, especially the cathedrals described in the section titled "The Architecture of a Life With Priests."

Neatly written, simple and insightful, Seeing Through Places comes to adult life in the next-to-last essay, "The Room in the World." An accomplished novelist by now, Gordon spends a summer in a house owned by friends on Cape Cod, spartan and bare, where she feels, through the work she does there, more at home than in any other place. Eventually the desire to own the place corrupts her pure feeling of belonging, and the idea of the responsibility of ownership is achingly described in the passages where the author struggles to make a responsible fiscal and personal decision. She observes, after deciding she cannot have the house:

How outsize are our appetites, how easily jaded. How quickly we grow gluttonous, our eyes half closed, our necks thick with excess. How easily what would once have seemed an unattainable luxury begins to seem a necessity, its absence a deprivation, a proof of the injustice of the world.

Gordon ends the book by affirming her current and permanent place in the world, back at Barnard and New York City's Upper West Side. "Boulevards of the Imagination" is a glowing tribute to the city and to all the forces in her life that continue to bring her back there. "How can I say anything," she asks in a last gasp of gratitude, "except, 'Now I am here.' "

  • A review of Seeing Through Places

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