Gordon, Mary (Vol. 22)
Mary Gordon 1949–
Both of Gordon's books, Final Payments and The Company of Women, chronicle a young woman's struggle for maturation within the limits of a Catholic upbringing.
(See also CLC, Vol. 13, Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102, and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6, American Novelists since World War II.)
FRANCINE du PLESSIX GRAY
If there was any doubt that Mary Gordon was her generation's preeminent novelist of Roman Catholic mores and manners when she published her remarkable first novel, "Final Payments," it is dispelled by ["The Company of Women"]. In Miss Gordon's vision, the church seems to offer an ideal of perfection that dominates the lives of believers and apostates alike. Miss Gordon's new heroine is once again a defector from the church who, as if doing penance for having lost her faith, seems to constantly strive for a perfect act of contrition….
But "The Company of Women" presents us with a quandary: Is Miss Gordon's craft as a novelist keeping up with the grand and virginal boldness of her vision? (p. 1)
George Bernard Shaw once defined melodrama as "a simple and sincere drama of action and feeling … allegorical, idealistic, full of generalizations and moral lessons." Unlike "Final Payments," which was a sad tale told in a brilliantly comic mode, the reformed-reprobate plot of Miss Gordon's new novel comes perilously close to Shaw's definition. And it is only rescued from the more mawkish excesses of melodrama by its singular and fascinating streak of monastic Amazonism. "It is for shelter that we marry and make love," Felicitas reflects in the last chapter. Only this austerity of voice, this obstinate refusal to capitulate to the romantic tone, rescues the novel from bathos….
"Final Payments" centered on the universal religious problem of the search for perfect charity. "The Company of Women" struggles with specifically Roman Catholic issues of other-worldly vocation, with that call to a priesthood of the elect which Cyprian tries to impose on Felicitas. Thus Miss Gordon's new work reverses the customary progress of second novels, which tend to move out from the autobiographical or ethnic context of first books. Instead the author turns considerably inward, burrowing even more deeply into Irish Catholic orthodoxy and symbolism….
Unfortunately "The Company of Women," despite its exalted spiritual message, has numerous novelistic flaws. And some of them, ironically, stem from the very integrity and chastity of the author's vision. Miss Gordon, for instance, has grave problems creating fully fleshed,...
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I thought Final Payments was foolishly overpraised—Isabel's friends and lovers were lukewarm dumplings, and Gordon had no flair for writing about sex—but the first sixty pages or so had a weight and assurance rare in a first novel. When Gordon wrote about Isabel's love for her father, the prose was hushed, unforced; the sturdy sentences themselves seemed to shoulder grief. Once Isabel dragged her questing soul out into the real world, the novel became weary and contrived; Gordon flogged the book along until, dazed with exhaustion, it collapsed in a whimpering heap. Curious, then, that Gordon was compared—favorably!—with that master of poise and flowing music, Jane Austen. Austen never showed such strain.
Yet Jane Austen will probably be pressed into service again with the publication of The Company of Women; indeed, Gordon courts such comparisons. Felicitas, the precocious heroine of Gordon's novel, is slipped a copy of Pride and Prejudice after she bungs up her head in a traffic accident. (The year: 1963.) Recuperating in a hospital bed, she devours Pride and Prejudice because it's "the one book on her table that [isn't] about Catholics." Poor Felicitas is up to her chin in Catholics….
The early chapters of Gordon's novel owe much to McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, as the unfolding of Felicitas's young soul becomes a sensual experience, with God hovering as a pool of light somewhere above the candles, musky incense, and blue-winged wax angels. Gawky Catholic girl-hoods have been evoked before,… yet Gordon still manages to strike some original notes. Her description of how the Cuban missile crisis brought the school day to an abrupt halt is vivid and comic, crisp with remembrance.
There's also a frightening scene—it's the best thing in the book—in which Father Cyprian angrily tries to rid Felicitas of fanciful notions about heaven by dragging her through a barn-yard, practically rubbing her nose in the pig dung and cow dung. At times, however, Mary Gordon seems determined to be more Catholic than the pope. Just as director Martin Scorsese sticks a bleeding...
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Morality and womanhood are the topics addressed by Mary Gordon in her two novels, "Final Payments" [and "The Company of Women"] …: morality posed as a question—is self-sacrifice a form of self-indulgence?—and womanhood as a physical and mental plight….
A perfectionist, Gordon views men as gods or oafs; she doesn't come to terms in either of her books with the idea of them as human beings. Her reflections on men and women are unresolved…. Gordon's female characters back away from confrontation with the adversaries they admire—the father in "Final Payments," the priest in "The Company of Women"—and retreat in sanctimonious disgust from the oafs. Since they could certainly say, as Jane Eyre does, "I felt his influence in my marrow—his hold on my limbs," the absence of intersexual argument is a disappointment. It could be a result of the feminist piety that seems to underlie Gordon's portrayal of women and brings her, at times, to the verge of sentimentality…. (p. 177)
Like "Final Payments," "The Company of Women" features self-denial as a major motive, and again the emotional volume is set high from the start, with mention on the first page of deep love and a couple of powerful aversions. (p. 178)
The substance of the book is emotional action: friendship, enmity, insanity, danger, shame, fear, astonishment, shock; feelings of deepest pleasure, of pure, infantile shame, of pure loss, perfect simplicity, extreme honor, durable pride, and demanding and beautiful grandeur, not to mention hate and love. Love is the theme, and Gordon wields the word with accustomed zeal and virtuosity, applying it in assorted grammatical forms to human beings, God, ledger books, mathematics,...
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The Company of Women is a symbolic meditation disguised as a realistic Bildungsroman. Mary Gordon's study of faith, love and charity begins with four Catholic women, the girl Felicitas, and their priest Father Cyprian all poised in an ecstasy of hope…. By the end of the novel, Felicitas has grown up, had an illegitimate child, and apparently failed to fulfil her early promise. On a deeper level her worldly failure has only confirmed why Felicitas was "called after the one virgin martyr whose name contained some hope for ordinary human happiness". By choosing to live a life of saintly ordinariness, she illuminates the lives of her mother, godmothers and priest, and leads them to accept their coming deaths…. When Felicitas embraces her iconic Marian role as mother of a child "with two fathers", the mantle of hope can pass on to her daughter Linda, "superior to all other girls her age in beauty, grace, and wisdom"….
Mary Gordon offers enough information in The Company of Women to indicate the limiting ironies in Felicitas's choice. Felicitas believes that love is a means of self-protection, and she is about to marry a stupid man for the safety of his silence. It is not enough to be saved; she needs to be safe too. The entire structural and stylistic thrust of The Company of Women moves in the opposite direction, however, away from irony and towards lyrical sincerity. Mary Gordon accomplishes the...
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Brenda L. Becker
Ah, you may say, here it comes. Another Lapsed Literata has escaped the convent for the marketplace, there to hawk elegant self-portraits complete with stigmata induced by that Freudian demon, the Catholic Childhood.
Well, you would be right—and wrong. [Final Payments and The Company of Women]—both bestsellers—can indeed be read as familiar reverse-gear apologetics, Rent-a-Joyce sagas of guilt and liberation with a predictable dash of feminist rancor thrown in.
But, thanks to Miss Gordon's considerable, if uneven, talent, they are more than that. They are deft, thoughtful, often funny, and occasionally brilliant. This is not Maria Monk scribbling on the walls of...
(The entire section is 1422 words.)