STARRED REVIEW
September 2020

Payback

By Mary Gordon
Payback offers many pleasures, not only the range in voices but also the evocation of two eras, the early 1970s and the current decade, with the right amount of period detail.
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In her long writing career, Mary Gordon has frequently embraced themes surrounding women’s lives, feminism and family love. Her new novel, Payback, returns to those themes as it follows the lives of two women.

In 1972, Agnes Vaughan, an idealistic young art history teacher at a Rhode Island girls’ school, wonders whether she’s making any difference in her students’ lives. She decides to take Heidi Stolz, an overprivileged, antagonistic girl and the school’s “least obviously lovable” student, under her wing. Agnes sets up a project that will send Heidi to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. But the project backfires when Heidi finds herself out of her depth and is raped by a man. When she returns home and asks Agnes for help, Agnes instead blames Heidi. Heidi runs off, and Agnes is so appalled by her error that she quits her job to look for the girl, who has disappeared.

The story moves forward to 2015, as Agnes prepares to leave Rome, where she’s lived since 1972. She has slowly constructed a new life but still secretly despairs at having betrayed Heidi’s trust. The novel then moves into Heidi’s perspective, and we learn how she reinvented herself as reality TV star Quin Archer, host of “Payback,” a show that lets victims confront their victimizers. Heidi’s current goal is to make Agnes pay for what she did.

Payback resists categorization; it’s part satire and part meditative character study with a lot of interiority. Agnes’ sin is of its time, and readers may wonder how it merited decades of obsession. Still, Payback offers many pleasures, not only the range in voices but also the evocation of two eras, the early 1970s and the current decade, with the right amount of period detail. Agnes’ sections offer some of the novel’s most beautiful writing, with wonderful observations on families, life in Italy, aging and the passage of time. This is an intriguing addition to Gordon’s body of work.

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Payback

Payback

By Mary Gordon
Pantheon
ISBN 9781524749224

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