Mary Gordon: TOP TEN BOOKS

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Mary Gordon photographed by Christopher Greenleaf

Raised in an observant Roman Catholic household, American author Mary Gordon considered joining a convent before turning her interests to writing, dealing primarily with religiousness, faith, morals and piety in her works of fiction. She is the author of several books, including The Liar’s Wife, The Company of Women, and in 2017, There Your Heart Lies. Gordon is the recipient of three O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the New York Public Library Literary Lion Award, and in 2008, was named the Millicent C. McIntosh Professor of Writing at Barnard College.

Below are Mary Gordon’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set.


Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf
I first read it because it was on sale for a quarter in a bookstore in Penn Station. I thought it was going to be something like the Albee play. I read it on the train to Boston, and I felt that the prose had broken one of my ribs: it was so powerful. I had been a poet until then, not thinking of writing fiction and “Mrs. Dalloway,” let me know you could do in fiction what I wanted to do in poetry.
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The Good Soldier

Ford Madox Ford
It reminds me, always, of the futility of most judgments, how difficult it is to know anyone whom one thinks one knows, the truth that some problems have no solution but a tragic one.
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Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Katherine Anne Porter
Porter accomplishes an extraordinary amount in a few pages. She addresses the horrors of war from a woman’s perspective; she touches on the difficult a terrain a working woman must navigate in a man’s world; she creates a desirable male, describing his physical allure from a female point of view: quite rare in most fiction. But most astonishing, in chronicling Miranda’s near death experience and her reluctant return to life, she describes the indescribable and deals with the most profound human issues: life, death, identity, in shatteringly beautiful prose.
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The Dubliners

James Joyce
The lives of ordinary people in a second rate city are given depth and tragic resonance in sensually realized prose. “The Dead,” in particular succeeds in rendering a perfectly realistic scene: a holiday party, brilliantly capturing different voices and registers, and then wallops us with a vision of life, love, death and meaning.
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Swann's Way

Marcel Proust
Reading Proust is not like reading any other book: it is like having another life alongside one’s ordinary one. I read it every day for ten years. The miracle and mystery of consciousness, the tricks that memory plays, the gifts and thefts of time, the exhausting and exhilarating never completed task of perception: no one has come so close in capturing these.
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The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky tackles the largest, most impossible questions: how does one exist, as a whole human being, in a desperately cruel world? Do you save a town if it means sacrificing a child? Is freedom a gift or an impossible burden for weak creatures such as ourselves? Is love possible or a delusion?
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George Eliot
The character of Dorothea Brooke, a gifted woman whose gifts are thwarted by the possibilities available to her, yet who flourishes despite it because of the greatness of her character, the depiction of a woman of passion and intelligence, the tracing of disillusionment in love and marriage—Middlemarch accomplishes all this while creating a vivid world of politics, community, and landscape.
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A Nest of the Gentry

Ivan Turgenev
Turgenev’s tenderness, this heartbreaking tale of two innocents crushed by the machinations of stupid, coarse characters, their inferiors in every way, is a masterpiece of evocation, both of the natural world, of a love extraordinary for its purity, alongside bitingly funny satiric characterization—all this create an atmosphere of sweet melancholy I find irresistible.
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Babette's Feast

Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen
Here, Isak Dinesen explores the question of art, its life giving potential, the road it travels, sometimes parallel to, sometimes in direct collision with morality, acts of generosity and grace that, seemingly different, have the same source. Babette says these words that continually inspire and encourage me: “All that an artist asks is this: give me leave to do my utmost.”
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Diary of a Country Priest

Georges Bernanos
I love it for its portrayal of a good man whose goodness is misunderstood and unrewarded by almost everyone in the small town he gives his life to serve. I think often of its great last line: “What does it matter? Grace is everywhere.”
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