Payback: A Novel

Written by Mary Gordon
Review by Kristen McDermott

Author/memoirist Gordon’s award-winning fiction often focuses on generational tensions and damage, and particularly the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. She ramps up the conflict in this exploration of a reality-TV star’s plot to expose and punish her high school art teacher for a thoughtless comment 40 years before.

Heidi Stolz/Quin Archer is a thinly veiled Trump avatar (the 2016 election is mentioned frequently as a watershed event); she’s a child of privilege and emotional abuse, a devotee of Ayn Rand, who sees all relationships as transactional, and who believes what most would call virtue is actually weakness. Her carefully curated appearance, her cruelty, her self-serving interior monologues, are designed to cause revulsion in most readers. The art teacher, Agnes Vaughan di Pietro, seems at first to be Heidi’s mirror image: she’s empathetic, sensitive, and intensely moral. Gordon alternates the two protagonists carefully, allowing each a long narration of her life story before bringing them into collision, so that the reader can fully appreciate Agnes’s intense, lifelong guilt over the wrong she did Heidi (the novel’s action spans the years 1972-2018). The contrasting points of view invite the reader to compare one character who is everything we’re supposed to value — art, love, introspection — to another who is everything we’re supposed to reject — narcissism, vindictiveness, greed. But is Agnes’ self-absorption in her own guilt any less narcissistic? And is Heidi’s version of reality TV any less art? The conclusion is as surprising as it is suspenseful.

Gordon’s masterful structure and sense of voice create an intensely moving meditation on the relationship of the past self and its deeds to the present, as well as a brilliant evocation of the emotional impact of aging on women’s lives and identities.