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Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments, is set in the decade after the historic Second Vatican Council, which convened in 1962. The council moved toward greater liberalism in Roman Catholicism. The novel deals with Isabel Moore, a devoted daughter who spends eleven years tending to her ailing father in his decline and death.

At thirty, she has given up a good portion of her youth, not with the aim of being a good Catholic, which the church members and many acquaintances assume, but because she loves her father and is doing what she needs to do. He is, in a sense, her God incarnate.

She no longer, in truth, holds with the tenets of the church, but she is a darling of the priests, who applaud her dutiful dedication but sometimes have trouble remembering her name. She is defined in terms of her deeds rather than who she is. To the townspeople, she is a bit of an oddity, an adoring child who never puts herself first.

Her father, an arrogant conservative, is not always lovable. He is judgmental, unforgiving of human foibles, mostly uncaring. He approves of her, however, and she can make him laugh. Even after one of the final strokes leaves his face expressionless, she can feel the convulsions of laughter ripple through his body.

Her days are prescribed: Mornings are spent getting him ready for the day, lunch coming as the first event. She is comforted by the daily rituals: shaving him, singing his favorite songs, reading aloud to him while he scratches her head. Her life has direction and form. Whether neurosis or devotion drives her actions is immaterial. She cannot have it any other way.

It is when she gains her freedom and has only herself to look after that she falters, failing at first to understand that her days of presumed sainthood are over. It is then that she realizes that she rather relished the role, and so, after a period of succumbing to what she considers human weakness, she once again determines to dedicate her life to goodness, to return to ingrained ritual, to the Catholic ideal of loving the unlovable.

Isabel assigns herself the task of seeing to the needs of an elderly, despised former housekeeper. She absorbs the woman’s abuse until Isabel thinks that she has made her final payments to her father, to the church, and to her guilt. Her act of forgiveness, particularly forgiveness of herself, seems quite in accord with the tenor of the period of flux in the church.

Gordon’s novel speaks of a time shortly past in which some Catholic parents had no greater wish than for sons to become priests, their daughters nuns. It deals with a kind of Catholicism that is so much a part of the fabric of the church that many never lose it. Even after the easing of church rules, many Catholics understand the mindset of this novel, thus making it a timeless work. Gordon gives a new spin to an old theme.


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Isabel devotedly cares for her father, Joseph Moore, for eleven years until he dies, believing it her penance for having betrayed him. When she was nineteen, he found her in bed with his student, David Lowe. Three weeks later, he suffered his first stroke. Many years earlier, the housekeeper, Margaret Casey, wanted to marry Joseph. Isabel, then thirteen years old, jealously despised Margaret and did what neither her authoritarian father nor their loyal parish priest, Father Mulcahy, would do—she fired Margaret. When Isabel sees Margaret at her father’s funeral, she feels the same revulsion she...

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felt sixteen years earlier.

Isabel and her two childhood friends, Eleanor and Liz, maintain their friendships. All three women give up Catholicism. With her newfound freedom and the support of her friends, Isabel rapidly begins to change her life. She buys stylish, comfortable clothes with Eleanor, and she spends a weekend in Ringkill with Liz, Liz’s glamorous but oafish husband, John, and her children. Liz introduces Isabel to her beautiful young lover, Erica. John, whom everyone, including his wife, knows to be a womanizer, offers Isabel her first job, a six-month pilot program involving home care for the aged. She gratefully accepts.

Isabel returns to Queens, sells her father’s house, endures the painful insertion of an IUD, and moves upstate. She finds her own apartment and begins her job. At the first social gathering with her young colleagues, Isabel, out of anxiety, drinks too much; after the party, she allows John to have sex with her. Isabel craves affection, but this leaves her feeling dirty and out of control. Liz is angry with Isabel for allowing John to seduce her, and out of spite and curiosity she introduces Isabel to another married man, Hugh Slade, a cool rationalist who describes Isabel’s Catholic upbringing as “barbarous.” Isabel decides that she will be Hugh’s lover, although John continues to pursue her.

It is Isabel’s job to visit private homes where elderly people receive care and to judge the caretakers and the living conditions. She is often deeply moved by the individual stories she hears as she visits the homes, but they confirm her belief that there is no way to control what makes people happy.

One day, on a hike with Hugh, Erica, and Liz, Isabel is quick to tire and becomes infuriated with the patronizing tolerance with which the others treat her. When she finally reaches the end of the climb and Hugh tells her for the first time that he loves her, she feels both the richness of the moment and the first foreboding that what she values now is impossible to guarantee.

John continues to pursue her. When Isabel fends off his advances by punching him in the eye, he leaves her alone, but not without threatening to pay her back. When Hugh comes to eat a dinner she lovingly prepares, he scolds her for living in filth when he finds a moldy coffee cup in her living room. His words make Isabel realize that he cannot be trusted with her new and shaky womanhood.

Some weeks later, Hugh tells her he is considering leaving his wife, Cynthia. At a party Cynthia verbally accosts Isabel, calling her “the little bitch.” John maliciously tells Cynthia a great deal about Isabel, and on the basis of that knowledge Cynthia knows exactly what to say to hurt Isabel, telling her that she is selfish and perverted and that she was impatient for her father to die. Cynthia’s words crumble Isabel’s illusions and all semblance of equilibrium. Completely distraught, she withdraws, believing she is utterly alone and inexorably guilty. She breaks off her relationship with Hugh, telling him to return to Cynthia.

Out of an irrational need to stop causing others pain, to do penance, and to cast her life back in the role that is safe, Isabel goes to take care of Margaret. Margaret treats her hatefully, but Isabel perseveres. As she cooks and cleans, she eats and gains weight, with her dress size increasing from ten to sixteen. When Margaret insists, she has her long, lovely hair cut into a “bubble.” Father Mulcahy’s visit gives her an evening of respite, but when Margaret insults him, Isabel finally sees that what she is doing in this ugly house with a mean-spirited woman is trying to give up all that she loves so as never to have to lose it.

Realizing this, Isabel can write to Hugh and ask him to wait for her while she heals and call Eleanor to come for her. To free herself from Margaret, she makes her final payment: She gives her all the money she possesses, the twenty thousand dollars she received from the sale of her father’s house. Eleanor and Liz come to get her late that night and, exhilarated and free, they drive off into the dawn.