Mary Catherine Gordon is a major Catholic writer of novels, short stories, and essays. She was born the only child of David and Anna (Gagliano) Gordon; both her parents were devout Catholics. Her mother was of Irish and Italian ancestry; her father was a convert from Judaism who, according to Gordon, romanticized working-class Irish Catholics. Gordon was reared by her father, while her mother worked, until his death just before her eighth birthday. It was her father who encouraged her, even at her young age, to always take her studies seriously. In The Shadow Man, perhaps her most important piece of nonfiction, Gordon chronicled her search for her father’s past.
Gordon attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. The pious atmosphere of both family and school deeply affected her, though not always positively. Determined to be a nun in grade school, she was equally determined to be a rebel in high school. Being reared Catholic provided her with a wealth of themes, characters, and images for her writing. In 1967, Gordon entered Barnard College of Columbia University and studied creative writing, though she wrote verse rather than prose; she would remain a practicing poet but would not publish her work. After receiving her B.A., Gordon enrolled in the writing program at Syracuse University in 1971. She completed the master’s degree in 1973 and a year later began teaching English at Dutchess Community College. She married James Brain in the same year. In 1975, she published her first story and began a novel.
Two years later, Gordon met the British novelist Margaret Drabble in London. Drabble read the manuscript for the novel Final Payments and put Gordon in touch with a literary agent who sold the book to Random House. At an editor’s urging, Gordon rewrote the third-person story as a first-person narrative. The novel was an immediate popular and critical success. A best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, Final Payments was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made The New York Times Book Review list of outstanding works for 1978. Reviewers were intrigued by Gordon’s evocation of Catholicism and charmed by her straightforward yet image-filled prose. The novel describes the midlife odyssey of Isabel Moore. Living at home until her early thirties to care for her zealous, indomitable father, Isabel finds herself liberated by his death. The responsibility for keeping up with modern mores (both career-related and sexual), however, proves too much for her. Isabel seeks out her father’s crotchety, pious housekeeper, now herself an invalid, and plans to dedicate her life once more to the care of another. The housekeeper soon proves a tyrant, and Isabel cannot...
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