In 1937, 19 year old Marian Taylor marries her gay brother’s Jewish lover, Russell Rabinowitz, and leaves the comfort of her wealthy New York Catholic family to take on the cause of the Communists against Franco in Spain. The youngest of nine, Marian and her brother Johnny have been the embarrassment of the wealthy Young family – Johnny because he is gay and Marian because she is independent and strong willed. After Johnny’s suicide, Marian can no longer countenance her family, and she and Russell, a physician, go off to Spain to provide medical assistance to the Republican forces.

After working in a hospital in Valencia, Russell quickly becomes disillusioned with the cause, concluding that violence and hatred have overtaken righteous ideology and leaves Spain, while Marian chooses to stay. She is transferred to another hospital where she meets a Spanish Doctor, Ramon Ortiz, and falls in love. They are married when Marian becomes pregnant, but Ramon dies of sepsis before the child is born. Marian goes to live with Ramon’s spiteful mother and abashed father, where she has the child, for whom she has no love. Her mother in law names him Ignacio and takes control of him (and of Marian as well). After seven years of living in dreadful circumstances with her in laws, she has an accident and breaks her leg. She meets a female doctor, Isabel, and her brother the priest Tomas. Her life suddenly changes and vastly improves. Isabel is strong willed and intelligent and Tomas is devoted and empathetic to a fault.

Marian meets an American 10 years her junior, Theo. They marry and move to Rhode Island, where we catch up again with Marian in 2009, when she is 92 years old. She is living with her beloved granddaughter, Amelia. Marian has lived a good life, running a nursery (garden) and fighting for causes that are important to her. As she is dying, she begins to recount her life to Amelia, who is astounded to learn these things about her grandmother. Amelia goes off to Spain to try to relive some of her grandmother’s history, with at best mixed results.

The novel is interesting in that it follows the Spanish civil war through the eyes of an American woman. Marian is interesting and a well-developed character. However, Mary Gordon’s writing and character portrayals feel flat to me and although the story is good, it felt like there was something missing. If you choose to read the book and figure out what is missing, will you let me know?

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