Isabel Moore, the central character is Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments, is the sort of woman one would like for a friend. For eleven years before the novel begins, she has been caring for her father, who has suffered a series of strokes. She has established a ritual of feeding him and bathing him, of reading to him, of sleeping when he sleeps, that has not only dulled her but has consumed the years when most women are establishing themselves in careers and in important adult relationships.
The novel opens with the father’s funeral. Isabel is thirty. The shape of her previous existence has suddenly dissolved, and she must, quite literally, make a life for herself. Into this staggering task she moves by fits and starts, making rapid, almost dizzying progress once she is launched, only to become paralyzed by memory and grief toward the end of the novel. Her problems, intensified by her circumstances, are those every woman must face: how to come to terms with one’s parents; how to discover satisfying, useful work; how to carry on friendships; how to deal with sex. Because these questions are so familiar, and because Mary Gordon allows Isabel to narrate her story in the first person, the reader immediately adopts Isabel’s view of the world and easily shares in her triumphs and failures.
As the novel unfolds, Isabel must deal not only with her father’s death, but also with the meaning of her relation to him during his life. Father and daughter have been alone together since Isabel was two, and her intelligence and self-scrutiny will not allow her to avoid acknowledging the jealous possessiveness of their attachment. The possessiveness has been sanctioned by her conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing and by what she perceives to be the Church’s teaching about filial duty. She has a clear memory of how, at thirteen, she contrived the firing of a housekeeper, a whining, damp-handed woman with designs on her father. At nineteen she slept with one of Moore’s young associates out of frustration at what she viewed as her father’s readiness to give her up. Three weeks later he suffered his first stroke, and Isabel, out of guilt, accepted with no hesitation the responsibility of caring for him.
As she reflects on all these events, she gradually comes to understand how she and her father have punished each other, albeit out of a deep and sometimes admirable devotion. Her growing clarity about her feelings toward her father reveals the sensitive hand of a novelist who refuses either to romanticize Isabel’s devotion or to psychoanalyze it away. Gordon also carefully develops the role of the Church in encouraging what is in some ways an unhealthy relation. Although she cannot hide from her father the loss of her virginity, Isabel does manage to hide from him that she has lost her faith. Despite this lapse from daughterly perfection, she respects her father’s orthodoxy, and she solicitously entertains the priests who come to visit him and who praise her for being so dutiful. She may not be going to Mass on Sundays, but she is still, in the eyes of the Church, a good girl.
Not only is the author clear-sighted in treating the complicated relation between daughter and father; she is equally convincing in her account of Isabel’s friendships with Eleanor and Liz, long her neighbors and schoolmates, and still her best friends. She has seen less of Liz than of Eleanor, whose beauty and taste Isabel alternately admires and finds cloying. Her friend takes intense delight in fruit and clothing, in their colors and textures, in the pleasures of a warm bath or a cool glass of wine. It is Eleanor who helps Isabel select a new wardrobe for her new life, who encourages her to undertake contraception, who shares her own growing sense that relations with men may be so difficult that celibacy offers an attractive alternative. In the weeks following Moore’s death, Isabel and Eleanor manage to acknowledge and endure their first serious disagreement; they also discover the dangers of indulging themselves in the comforts of staying at home together,...
(The entire section is 1673 words.)