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...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
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 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...
(The entire section is 818 words.)