Morris, Mary McGarry 1943–
Morris, Mary McGarry 1943–
(Mary Joan McGarry Morris)
PERSONAL: Born 1943, in Meriden, CT; daughter of John and Margaret (Chiriaco) McGarry; married Michael Morris (an attorney), 1962; children: Mary Margaret, Sarah, Melissa, Michael, Amy. Education: Attended University of Vermont, 1960–62, and University of Massachusetts, 1962–63.
ADDRESSES: Home—Andover, MA. Agent—Naggar Literary Agency, 216 E. 75th St., New York, NY 10021.
CAREER: Massachusetts Department of Welfare, Lawrence, financial assistance social worker, 1980–86; writer.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Award nomination, 1988, and PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 1989, both for Vanished.
Vanished, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.
A Dangerous Woman, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
Songs in Ordinary Time, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.
Fiona Range, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
A Hole in the Universe, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.
The Lost Mother, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
Also contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review.
ADAPTATIONS: A Dangerous Woman was adapted as a feature film starring Deborah Winger.
SIDELIGHTS: As the author of several novels, Mary McGarry Morris has received considerable attention from critics and readers, as well as from prestigious awards panels. Her books are noted for their depictions of mentally and emotionally impaired individuals who have difficulty coping with an inhospitable world. As New York Times Book Review contributor Alice McDermott put it, "Morris does not devise plots, but traps: steel-toothed, inescapable traps of circumstance and personality against which her characters struggle … and then fail." Ultimately, Morris suggests that these individuals are incapable of surviving their surroundings. Her books typically conclude with violent murders, death apparently being all that is left for characters who have exhausted their other possibilities.
Such grim subjects seem odd coming from Morris, a mother of five children who, following college, went on to live what Los Angeles Times writer Elizabeth Mehren described as a "stunningly balanced life." The disorder Morris depicts in her books may stem, in part, from her own childhood. Her parents separated when she was very young and, though her father continued to live separately, he, along with Morris and her mother, moved to Rutland, Vermont, when the author was six years old. It was in Rutland that Morris came to know the small New England communities that she features in her novels. When her mother and stepfather began employing retarded and emotionally disturbed men in their restaurant, she was exposed to another important influence. As she once told People magazine writer Kim Hubbard, her mother "believed everyone deserved a chance." The author would later manifest the same concern for society's outsiders by featuring mentally handicapped individuals in her fiction.
After marrying, Morris settled in Andover, Massachusetts, and was soon involved with raising a family and writing. Not surprisingly, her family obligations often took her away from her fiction and poetry. "With five children there couldn't be a set schedule for much," she told Washington Post writer Judith Weinraub. "It was always hard to find the time." Morris's writing regimen was also interrupted when she took a job as a social worker in order to help pay the children's college tuition. Consequently, her early attempts at novels remained unfinished, and the work that would eventually prove successful was painfully slow in coming. Her first novel, Vanished, took nearly eight years to write, and was then rejected twenty-seven times by publishers and agents. Without a publication to substantiate her abilities, Morris kept her writing a secret from everyone but her family. Despite this isolation, she continued to work on her fiction. "Writing was just in me," she told Weinraub. "I even began to think I probably would never be published. And I was accepting of that."
In 1986 Morris finally achieved a partial affirmation of her talents when she placed Vanished with noted literary agent Jean V. Naggar; two years later it was pub-lished. Vanished centers on Aubrey Wallace, a man whose socialization is so severely limited, most consider him retarded. Though he is functional to a certain degree—he has a job, a wife, and children—Aubrey is unquestioning and utterly passive. These qualities lead to trouble when Aubrey crosses paths with Dotty Johnson, a disturbed teenager who has recently killed her sexually abusive father. Dotty attempts to steal Aubrey's pickup, and Aubrey jumps into the cab. Unable to take any action to stop her, Aubrey just rides along, and this beginning is typical of their time together. Whatever Dotty wants, she takes, and whatever Aubrey encounters, he accepts. The next day Dotty kidnaps a baby, and the child becomes part of the roving, maladjusted family, crisscrossing the country from Massachusetts to Florida. They survive by finding work as migrant laborers, by stealing, and by prostitution. Five years after the kidnapping, they move in with a violent ex-convict named Jiggy Huller and his family. When Huller discovers the truth about the kidnaping, he hatches a plan to collect a 25,000 dollar reward for the child that ultimately brings about the novel's bloody conclusion.
Several critics commented that Morris's style and technique in Vanished are of an exceptionally high caliber for a first novelist. New York Times Book Review contributor Harry Crews noted that "her language is precise, concrete, and sensual. Her eye for telling detail is good, and her ear for the way people talk is tone-perfect." Opinions were divided, however, regarding Morris's handling of the novel's story elements. Some critics suggested that her emotionally charged topics—rape, murder, incest, kidnaping, prostitution, and adultery—run the risk of overwhelming the rest of the book. Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found that the novel, unable to transform its negative subject matter into a meaningful message, "sinks into its chamber of horrors." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani also focused on the novel's preoccupation with ugly and sinister elements, but reached a different judgment. "Melodramatic as these events sound," Kakutani wrote, "they are presented with such authority by Ms. Morris that they hum with both the authenticity of real life and the mythic power of fable. This is a startling and powerful debut."
A Dangerous Woman, Morris's second novel, features another emotionally impaired protagonist, Martha Horgan, who is in many ways the counterpart to Aubrey Wallace in Vanished. Like Aubrey, Martha Horgan is an outcast, characterized as disturbed by the residents of her Vermont town. She is plagued by physical tics and is unable to interact with others in a mature manner. Sometimes her brutal honesty offends those around her; sometimes she explodes into childish rages. At other times, however, Martha almost becomes a functioning part of her community. Early in the book she gets a job at a dry cleaners and earns a degree of independence. She moves out of her aunt's home and forges a tenuous friendship with a coworker, Birdy. These gains are lost, however, due in part to Martha's insistence on exposing Birdy's lover as a thief. Martha's honesty costs her both the job and the friendship, and she is forced to return to her Aunt Frances's home. There an alcoholic handyman employed by Aunt Frances takes Martha as a temporary lover, then abandons her in favor of Frances. When she is forced to leave her aunt's home, Martha has few options, and tragedy is imminent.
Morris chose to relay much of the novel's action through Martha's disturbed perceptions, and this unconventional approach impressed several reviewers. Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote that A Dangerous Woman "is powerfully and dangerously written. To cast a blinding light on her protagonist, Morris has sacrificed subtleties or shadings. The balance of the outsider as both victim and helpless instigator is difficult to maintain." Jaimy Gordon, writing in the Washington Post, maintained that some of the story elements—including Martha's near rape at the age of sixteen—are unnecessary. Gordon also criticized some occasionally clumsy prose in the novel, but praised Morris's "remarkable portrait of a disturbed woman." This judgment was echoed by Vogue contributor Michael Upchurch, who emphasized the author's ability to "draw the reader so completely into Martha's world that it becomes impossible not to sympathize with her."
New York Times Book Review contributor Alice McDermott, comparing Morris's two novels, summarized: "A Dangerous Woman is not, finally, as convincing or as compelling … as was Ms. Morris's first book, nor is the prose quite so striking." Despite these reservations, the critic commended the powerful vision Morris puts forth in both of the novels. "The bleakness of her landscape remains pervasive," McDermott wrote. "This makes all the more remarkable those instants of frail light—a simple man's love for a child, a lost woman's recollection of affection—that she so deftly, so briefly, calls forth from the darkness."
Morris proved with her first two novels that she "can depict society's outsiders—people with bleak presents and no futures—with rare understanding and compassion," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. Her third novel, Songs in Ordinary Time, evidences this as well. The novel revolves around the Fermoyles, a family living in a small town in Vermont in 1960. Marie Fermoyle has struggled for years to support and raise her three children despite the lack of support from her alcoholic ex-husband. Enter Omar Duvall, a con man who convinces Marie to invest in one of his scams. The novel involves numerous subplots involving various friends and neighbors who "each in his or her own way is necessary to the town's ecosystem," commented Vanessa V. Friedman in Entertainment Weekly.
Critical reviews of Songs in Ordinary Time were mixed. "This novel becomes more powerful as one reads, building to a heart stopping denouement," noted a critic for Publishers Weekly. Michiko Kakutani, on the other hand, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the author's protagonists "lack the emotional chiaroscuro that Ms. Morris has lavished on her creations in the past." However, in USA Today Susan Kelly argued that Songs in Ordinary Time is "beautifully written." Kelly observed, "There is grace and poetry in Morris's prose. She opens the door to these people's souls, showing all their fears and flaws without making them seem ridiculous or unworthy."
In Morris's 2000 novel, Fiona Range, the title character is "smart, beautiful, and haunted by a past she cannot live down," according to Carolyn Kubisz in Booklist. Abandoned by her unwed mother as a baby, Fiona was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her relationships roll along, disaster after disaster. After her cousin Elizabeth returns from New York City with her fiancé, Fiona ends up sleeping both with him and with one of Elizabeth's former boyfriends. "Fiona knows she needs to reclaim her life, but each step she takes is closer to the abyss," found Harriet Klausner in BookBrowser.
Critics were again largely positive in their assessment of Fiona Range. "How these characters interact, what they say, and what they hide, makes for entertaining, suspenseful reading," opined Yvette Weller Olson in Library Journal. Olson found the work "compelling and satisfying." A Publishers Weekly critic's review was mixed, maintaining that the plot tends to "go in circles" and that Fiona's self-destructive nature distances the character from reader sympathy. Nonetheless, the critic went on to praise the "sustained tension in the narrative," and found that "the denouement packs a thriller's excitement." Kubisz found the narrative "slow moving at times," but concluded that Morris's ending, "with its twist of plot and hidden secrets revealed, makes this a worthy read."
In A Hole in the Universe Morris tells the story of outcast Gordon Loomis, who comes home after serving a twenty-five-year sentence for a murder he may not have committed. Struggling to cope with life outside prison, the gloomy Gordon just wants to be left alone; instead, he must fend off the intrusive attention of people. He spurns his brother's help in finding him a job, and feels helpless when the spinsterish Delores wants to help him become the "normal" man he wants to be. He tries to avoid the needy teenage daughter of the junkie across the street. Unfortunately, Gordon is unable to keep his life at a safe distance for long. His basic integrity draws him toward the people he seeks to protect, even though he is punished for his good deeds. When new accusations whirl around Gordon for a second crime he did not commit, the tale moves to its fitful conclusion and Gordon emerges as the novel's pathetic but winning hero.
Reviews of A Hole in the Universe were predominately enthusiastic. Booklist contributor Deborah Donovan found Morris's "empathy for Gordon … palpable, leaving the reader in awe of her uncanny ability to capture and convey each personality's unique essence." New York Times contributor John Hartl was more reserved in his assessment, writing, "What keeps this borderline potboiler simmering is the sense that the characters really are evolving." On the other hand, Boston Globe reviewer Caroline Leavitt applauded the novel's "topnotch suspense" and "expert plotting that make Morris such a superb storyteller," and was especially impressed with the author's inclusion of those "small heroics that resonate and break your heart."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, July, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Songs in Ordinary Time, p. 1860; February 15, 2000, Carolyn Kubisz, review of Fiona Range, p. 1052; February 1, 2004, Deborah Donovan, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. 993.
Chicago Tribune, March 7, 2004, Jessica Treadway, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. 4.
Detroit Free Press, February 3, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, July 28, 1995, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Songs in Ordinary Time, p. 57.
Library Journal, March 15, 2000, Yvette Weller Olson, review of Fiona Range, p. 128.
Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1991, pp. E1, E6.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 26, 1988, p. 3; January 20, 1991; April 25, 2004, Francie Lin, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. 6.
Newsweek, April 8, 1991, David Gates, review of A Dangerous Woman, pp. 61, 63.
New York, January 14, 1991, Rhoda Koenig, review of A Dangerous Woman, p. 67.
New Yorker, August 8, 1988, pp. 84-85.
New York Times, June 4, 1988, Michiko Kakutani, review of Vanished, p. 14.
New York Times Book Review, July 3, 1988, Harry Crews, "On the Lam with Dotty," p. 5; January 13, 1991, Alice McDermott, "The Loneliness of an Ogre," p. 9; August 4, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of Songs in Ordinary Time; March 21, 2004, John Hartl, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. 16.
People, April 15, 1991, Kim Hubbard, review of A Dangerous Woman, pp. 93-94.
Publishers Weekly, May 15, 1995, review of Songs in Ordinary Times, p. 53; March 13, 2000, review of Fiona Range, p. 59; January 26, 2004, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. 227.
Time, July 4, 1988, review of Vanished, p. 71; January 28, 1991, Mary Carlson, review of A Dangerous Woman, pp. 89-90.
USA Today, December 2, 1999, Susan Kelly, "Songs No Ordinary Novel"; May 10, 2000, Susan Kelly, "Teen Never Feels at Home in Range."
Vogue, January, 1991, pp. 112-113.
Washington Post, January 8, 1991; March 26, 1991, p. B1, B4; March 7, 2004, Caroline Leavitt, review of A Hole in the Universe, p. T6.
BookBrowser.com, http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (May, 2000), Harriet Klausner, review of Fiona Range.