So often with a memoir, or a seeming memoir, you will hear that it is “intensely personal,” as when a strong emotion affects one’s thoughts and behavior. Such does not apply to Mary Olivier: A Life. The novel evokes restrained Victorian mores, and deals with religious doubt, and propounds a variety of philosophical and scientific thought. Its treatment of these themes gives one a brush with some fairly recondite concepts, but when the potentially true shining insight finally cracks through (in the book’s last handful of paragraphs), I was worn out waiting for it.
Mary Olivier the character displays cleverness and a certain stubborn rebelliousness in matters of conscience and religion. She worries her mother when, just starting her teen years, she reads Spinoza and Kant, and annoys her by concluding that the Christian God is only a small example, and not a very good one, of the divine. Mary follows her own compass through her life, but does not behave in any outrageous way, when it comes right down to it. She stays home to care for her mother, living with her into her forties. The events of Mary’s life are relayed in fits and starts, always with the backdrop of the philosophical strands of her thought. Mary is certainly a spirited creature, and ultimately I admire her courage in facing so many people and societal strictures that worked so assiduously to shut her up.
As a reading experience I found Mary unrewarding. The philosophic milieu into which Mary thrusts herself and the reader held promise, but in the end there was precious little of it discussed. If it had been more prominent, the book would have difficulty qualifying as fiction, I guess. Mary’s ultimate insights are what set her apart as a fictional heroine: if there is happiness to be had, you will find it within yourself, not in people or objects that are outside of you. I suggest you pass.