I admire Mary Gordon extremely: I think she has written some of the strongest American novels of domestic and religious feelings in the last dozen years. But The Other Side, I am very sorry to say, is not one of them. It has some brilliantly painful scenes. One or two characters well up to Gordonian standards of malevolent self-denial, and there is an interesting obsession with retribution in family life: the House of Atreus is frequently invoked. But I found it slow, diffuse, and over-populated. There are too many life-stories and too many adjectives.
The family gathering has always made for American gothic horror or grotesque comedy (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, As I Lay Dying, Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles). The 1985 death-bed of 91-year-old Ellen MacNamara is in that fierce tradition. Ellen and Vincent both came from Ireland to ‘the other side’;