Mary Gordon

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Ann Hulbert (review date 28 February 1981)

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SOURCE: “Catholic Devotions,” in The New Republic, February 28, 1981, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review, Hulbert offers tempered evaluation of The Company of Women.]

Like being singled out as a child to be the object of others' great love and hope, writing an acclaimed first novel can be a mixed blessing. Great expectations loom forever after. To judge from the importance of special daughters in Mary Gordon's fiction, she seems to have known the first fate, and has no doubt learned the second during the three years since her excellent first novel, Final Payments, was published. A second novel faces the challenge of showing new promise without betraying any of the old.

In The Company of Women Gordon pursues the theme she developed in Final Payments: a much-loved daughter's experience of the conflict between the anachronistic Catholic world she grows up in and the sexually liberated, politically radical America of the 1960s and 1970s she finds beyond it. Among the host of almost formulaic contemporary novels by women about women in search of love, Final Payments stood out for its depiction of working-class Catholic life, where a more demanding drama of giving and receiving love unfolded. Under the sway of the church, Gordon's women were ready to dedicate their lives to others—not to husbands or lovers, but to parents, children, one another, and priests. Now Gordon seems to be elaborating a formula of her own. Not only does she keep to her original theme, she also constructs a similar structure. Both Isabel Moore in Final Payments and Felicitas Maria Taylor in The Company of Women venture forth from their Catholic haven, no longer fortified by the faith but irrevocably influenced by Catholicism's unfashionable mores. They try out the ordinary world and are made unhappy in love. In trouble, they retreat to a new version of their former lives.

Where Gordon ventures beyond her own model is in narrative technique. In her first novel Gordon had Isabel tell her story in the first person, which she did with authority and wit. Gordon's prose was strikingly crafted, full of carefully chosen words, observations, and ironies, especially throughout the first part of Isabel's tale—the 11 years she spent nursing her fiercely orthodox father, just the two of them in their dark house in Queens, until he died when she was 30. In The Company of Women young Felicitas has six collaborators telling the first section of her story, which takes place in the summer of 1969: her mother, four of her mother's friends, and a priest, Father Cyprian, who is spiritual mentor to all of them and surrogate father to the child (whose real father is long dead). As an omniscient narrator this time, Gordon never stands far back. Instead she projects herself into each of her characters in turn, looking through their eyes, speaking in their voices.

Gordon's ambitious narrative effort, however, does not succeed in opening out onto a more crowded Catholic scene. Unhappily, Gordon's new company seems to be composed of characters lifted from the periphery of Isabel's world in Final Payments to stand on their own nearer the center of the new novel, which it soon becomes clear they're not substantial enough to do. Felicitas's mother, Charlotte, remarks on a penchant of Father Cyprian's, which Gordon unfortunately shares:

Cyprian thought she was stupid. That was what he meant when he said, ‘Charlotte is the salt of the earth.’ He had to do that with people, have that one little sentence about everyone, as if he couldn't remember who was who without it. She was the salt...

(This entire section contains 1386 words.)

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of the earth and Elizabeth was one of God's doves and Clare had a mind like a man's and Mary Rose was a ray of sunlight and Muriel was an extraordinary soul.

Since these women, even stolid Charlotte, view themselves largely in Cyprian's terms, they tend to offer variations on his little epithets when Gordon gives them their chance to come forward. Not surprisingly, this makes for prose that is stylized and uneven, and characters who are closer to types than to fully imagined selves—and familiar types at that. Elizabeth and Clare are like maiden-aunt versions of, respectively, dreamy Eleanor and manly Liz, Isabel's best friends. Whining Muriel is a parody of Margaret in the earlier novel, who was a parody of the spinster with a martyr complex. Even Charlotte, whose personality is rounded out by the other characters' views of her, often lapses into caricatured saltiness when she speaks in her own voice, which Gordon loads with clichéd colloquialisms, “hells,” and “goddamns.” And Father Cyprian is cut from the same fierce, flawed, God-like cloth as Isabel's father; this adamant anti-sentimentalist who for years has been the anchor in the lives of these women is less compelling in the flesh than Mr. Moore was in Isabel's memory.

Only Felicitas, a younger and plainer version of Isabel, comes fully to life through others' doting visions of her and through her own voice, which inspires some of Gordon's best prose: “She believed she was worthy. Her soul she saw as glass filled with sky or water, as beautiful, as light, as silvery and important. That was her soul, light let through some transparent thing, cool light refreshed by water.” This serious 14-year-old lives for the summers spent among the odd company in the New York countryside, for the trip to six p.m. mass in the red pickup alone with Father Cyprian, talking about the splendor of God, the illusory beauty of nature, the turpitude of mankind—though she would never dream of admitting this joy to the friends she has made back at school in Brooklyn.

But six years later at Columbia, at the height of student radicalism, a rebellious Felicitas is ready to ridicule those joys to win the approval of the liberated friends she is desperate to have. As in Final Payments, Gordon's ironic sense and psychological insight are thrown off their accurate course when she turns from the outdated virginal enclave to portray the secular world beyond it. Her version of the 1960s scene is a superficial caricature rather than a penetrating parody. Robert Cavendish, Felicitas's political science professor and seducer, is ludicrous from the moment he strides into class and starts pontificating about “St. Herbert” (Marcuse). Out of class he's even worse, as he generously donates his beautiful body to the cause of promoting “revolutionary consciousness” through sex—naturally without the “possessiveness trip.” Robert's physique simply is not enough to explain why the once discriminating (often outright intolerant) Felicitas should fall for him and, with uncharacteristic piety, receive his attentions as “a blessing.” Occasionally she has flashes of her old judgmental self and pierces the self-righteous vacuity of the Columbia crowd with jokes, which of course they never get. But mostly she suffers Robert's abuse, convinced she's happy and free for the first time. Only when she finds she's pregnant does she turn back to her Catholic company in misery and need.

They take her in and give her their unconditional love, which they also give her child, yet another in the line of special daughters “whose family life is peculiar.” Gordon's feminine geneology is becoming all too familiar. But behind it lies a typology of love that gives Gordon's novels their uncommon clarity: the fierce love of God and the charity for all souls dictated by the Catholic faith; the selective but unswerving human love that flourishes in families, among friends (companies of women in Gordon's books); the sexual love between men and women. The fate of Gordon's heroines (unlike her other characters) is to know the competing claims of all three kinds of love and ultimately to choose the circumscribed love of a devoted enclave, which they took for granted when young and come to value, stoically rather than joyfully, in maturity. It is, as Felicitas says, an “isolated, difficult and formal” life, an anomaly in the “ordinary” world, where love is distributed differently. There, as Gordon showed in Final Payments, charity is left to government, which dispenses it “without the weights of love.” And there, as she shows this time, sexual love is easy, indiscriminate. But that world knows little of the steadfast love among close souls. Despite the weaknesses of her second effort, Gordon clearly is an authority on such loyal companies.


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Mary Gordon 1949-

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Gordon's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13 and 22.

Mary Gordon emerged as a highly respected contemporary novelist with the enormous critical and popular success of her debut novel, Final Payments (1978). Drawing heavily upon her own Catholic upbringing, Gordon examines the problematic and often contradictory claims of universal and particular love, Christian morality, domestic responsibility, sexual desire, and emotional fulfillment in the secular world. Distinguished for her well-crafted prose and engaging evocation of cloistered Catholic lives, Gordon focuses on the private struggles of modern women whose personal needs are sacrificed to the demands of selfless care-giving, marriage, motherhood, and religious conscience. While Final Paymentsand The Company of Women (1981) figure largely around Catholic themes, in subsequent novels such as Men and Angels (1985) and Spending (1998) Gordon expanded the settings and subjects of her novels to include female academics and artists who explore their conflicted feelings about romantic love and independence.

Biographical Information

Born in Long Island, New York, Gordon was an only child raised in a devout Catholic home by her mother, a legal secretary of Irish and Italian descent, and her eccentric father, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and avowed anti-Semite who wrote speeches for Joseph McCarthy and published a string of unsuccessful right-wing Catholic magazines. Gordon shared a strong emotional bond with her doting father, who taught her Greek, French, and philosophy before suffering a fatal heart attack when she was seven. Gordon attended a Catholic parochial school and graduated from Mary Louis Academy, an all-girl Catholic high school. As a child she wrote poetry and considered a monastic life, though eventually rejected the Church as a teenager; Gordon still considers herself a Catholic despite objections to papal strictures against birth control, abortion, and the ordination of women.

In 1967 Gordon received a scholarship to attended Barnard College of Columbia University in New York. While at Barnard, Gordon studied writing with novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, an important early mentor who encouraged her to switch from poetry to prose. After graduating from Barnard in 1971, Gordon attended Syracuse University, where she earned a master's degree in writing in 1973 and started an unfinished doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf; Gordon counts Woolf, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Ford Madox Fordamong her most important literary influences. While at Syracuse, Gordon met her first husband, James Brain, an anthropologist. From 1974 to 1978 Gordon taught English at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she began work on her first novel, Final Payments, which appeared in 1978. Gordon taught at Amherst College in 1979 and, during the same year, remarried to Arthur Cash, an English professor. During the 1980s, Gordon published several additional novels, The Company of Women,Men and Angels, and The Other Side (1989), and the short story collection Temporary Shelter (1987). She has taught English at Barnard College since 1988. Many of her critical essays and reviews are contained in Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (1992). Gordon has since published novellas in The Rest of Life (1993), the memoir The Shadow Man(1996), and a fifth novel, Spending.

Major Works

Final Payments introduces many of the recurring motifs and preoccupations in Gordon's fiction: the struggle to reconcile conflicting aspects of charitable and romantic love, emotional dependency, spiritual and family debts, and individual conscience and religious morality; rebellion against patriarchal authority; and the perverse allure of self-abnegation for the benefit of others, particularly among women. Set in working-class Queens, Final Payments is narrated by Isabel Moore, a thirty-year-old Irish Catholic woman who has devoted eleven years of her life to the constant care of her invalid father, a conservative Catholic and former professor of medieval literature; his debilitating paralysis stems from a stroke suffered after discovering Isabel in bed with one of his students. Upon her father's death—the novel opens at his funeral—Isabel is freed of her responsibilities and thrust into the world to establish an independent life. She finds an outlet for her long repressed sexual desire in two affairs—both with married men—which result in humiliation and self-loathing. To atone for her deep-seated guilt, Isabel resolves to care for her father's former housekeeper, Margaret Casey, an unlovable wretch whom she despises though views as a means to salvation. However, after enduring a period of penitent care-taking, Isabel abandons Margaret for a new life, leaving her a large sum of money from the sale of her father's home as a “final payment.”

The Company of Women involves a group of five middle-aged, sexually dormant women who share a profound emotional attachment to Father Cyprian, a right-wing Catholic priest who has renounced his clerical order in protest to liberal church concessions. Much of the novel figures around Felicitas Taylor, the daughter of one of the widowed women, whom Cyprian cultivates as his spiritual disciple. Felicitas eventually rebels against Cyprian and enrolls at Columbia University, where she encounters the student radicalism of the late 1960s and enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with her professor, a self-styled revolutionary by whom she becomes pregnant. Returning to the unconditional love of the women and Cyprian, Felicitas and the others relocate to Cyprian's Upstate New York home, where Felicitas raises her daughter and resigns herself to a simple life of ordinary pleasures. Men and Angels focuses on Anne Foster, an art historian and working mother whose husband, a professor, is on sabbatical in France. Uncomfortable with her new independence, Anne hires Laura Post, an emotionally scarred religious zealot, to help care for her children while she works on a catalogue of artwork by Caroline Watson, an obscure early twentieth-century painter. Anne's research reveals that Watson was a callous mother who neglected her son, mirrored by Laura's own unhappy childhood and consequent insecurities. Laura's fanaticism, which ultimately leads her to suicide, wreaks havoc in the Foster home and threatens Anne's domestic security. Though Catholicism is absent from this novel, the themes of selfless love and renunciation come to the fore as Anne questions her inability to care for the unlovable Laura, as well as the responsibilities of motherhood and married life.

In The Other Side Gordon returned to the New York Irish Catholic milieu of her first novel. Set over a period of twenty-four hours, this generational saga revolves around the homecoming of Vincent MacNamara, an elderly man who returns to his Queens home and dying wife, Ellen, after several months in the hospital with a broken hip. Drawing upon the fragmentary, transcontinental experiences of a large cast of characters, Gordon reconstructs the complex web of infidelity, parental neglect, alcoholism, divorce, and sibling rivalry that has shaped the immigrant MacNamara family since the early years of the twentieth century. Spending features Monica Szabo, a witty, middle-aged artist, mother, and divorcee who enters into an ideal romantic arrangement with “B,” a wealthy Wall Street trader and admiring collector of her paintings who offers unlimited emotional and financial support to facilitate her art. With “B” as her devoted lover, muse, and model, Monica produces “Spent Men,” an acclaimed series of paintings that depicts Christ in a state of post-orgasmic exhaustion after his crucifixion. In addition to problems associated with her new celebrity, fortune, and controversial art, Monica reflects on the artistic process and the exigencies of modern life.

The Rest of Life contains three novellas, each of which features women who obsess over love, death, and isolation. The first, “Immaculate Man,” involves a middle-aged female narrator who runs a shelter for battered women. She is entangled in an intense affair with Clement, an unchaste priest who she fears will leave her for a needier woman. In “Living at Home,” the female narrator is a psychiatrist who works with autistic children. She lives in constant fear of losing her beloved third husband Lauro, an Italian photojournalist who frequently travels to dangerous foreign locales to cover war and revolution. The third novella, “The Rest of Life,” involves Paolo, a septuagenarian who returns to her native Italy where, as a teenager, she failed to fulfill her half of a suicide pact with her boyfriend, Leo, and was ostracized by the community for his death. Though able to forgive herself and others, she laments her unrealized passion and Leo's untimely death.

Gordon's collection of short fiction, Temporary Shelter, contains twenty stories that previously appeared in publications such as Granta, Antaeus, Redbook, and Mademoiselle. As in her novels, these stories involve female protagonists—both young and adult—who relate the fragile security of loving relationships, particularly those between parents and children, spouses, and lovers. Good Boys and Dead Girls consists of book reviews, essays on literature and contemporary issues, and Gordon's personal reflections on diverse subjects such as abortion, Andy Warhol, the Gospel of Saint Mark, and writing. In The Shadow Man Gordon retraces her effort to come to terms with the powerful memory of her long deceased father. Through painstaking research into the factual content of his biography, Gordon discovers that her father has lied about much; she learns, among other things, that his real name was Israel not David, he was born in Lithuania not Ohio, he never attend Harvard, or any college, as he claimed, and he edited a pornographic magazine during the 1920s. After scrutinizing his life and legacy, Gordon finally lays him to rest in a symbolic reburial that signifies closure.

Critical Reception

Gordon is highly regarded for her penetrating studies of self-denial, Catholic consciousness, and guilt-stricken women who are torn between external obligations and private desires. Final Payments was hailed as an impressive first novel and enthusiastically praised for its remarkable maturity, psychological depth, and unusual discussion of self-sacrifice and filial piety—concerns that seemed to run counter to the 1970s “me generation.” As Pearl K. Bell notes, Final Payments “was acclaimed not only for the dazzling intensity of her prose, but for the indisputable authority of her portrayal of the Irish-Catholic working class in Queens.” The Company of Women, which received mixed assessment, is considered by many an elaboration of the themes and personalities in Final Payments. Gordon garnered favorable reviews for Men and Angels, The Other Side, and the novellas of The Rest of Life. Along with Final Payments, Men and Angels and The Other Side are regarded as Gordon's most ambitious and accomplished works to date. Gordon is often compared to Victorian novelists Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, as well as Virginia Woolf for her subtle perception of female emotions, and to Flannery O'Connor for her interest in extreme religiosity. Best known as a novelist, Gordon has also received positive reviews for her short stories, essays, and memoir The Shadow Man. Though critics have cited flaws in Gordon's reliance on stereotyped characters, tenuous narrative structures, and faulty plots, she is consistently praised for her finely tuned prose, vivid descriptions, and keen insights regarding the complexities of reciprocal love.

Robert Towers (review date 19 March 1981)

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SOURCE: “Reconciliations,” in New York Review of Books, March 19, 1981, pp. 7-8.

[In the following review, Towers offers tempered assessment of The Company of Women, which he describes as “a work at once excellent and flawed.”]

Since the rise and predominance of the art novel, the documentary aspect of fiction—regarded in the nineteenth century as a major strength of the genre—has figured little in critical discourse except among Marxists. Yet, stubbornly, the appeal of the documentary persists—and not only among unsophisticated readers. It is an impurity that cannot be strained out by the most finely textured filter of linguistically based criticism. Just as readers were once eager to be told what it is like to live in a coal mining town or to work in a grog shop in a Paris slum or to make one's way up as a businessman in Boston, so we still yearn for the revelation of modes of existence that are relatively unfamiliar, even when they involve large numbers of people living in our midst.

Too often, of course, the fiction that in these days gratifies that yearning has no literary pretensions whatsoever. What is it like to have grown up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Queens, in a house that “had always been full of priests”? An exotic way of life? Hardly—except perhaps to the excessively secularized purveyors and consumers of “serious” literary culture. Yet I suspect that the careful, indeed loving, documentation of the mores of this world, arousing as it does the staring curiosity of the outsider and the pained or delighted recognition of the insider, had a good deal to do with the popular success of Mary Gordon's first novel, Final Payments.

Fortunately for her reputation, there was much more to the novel than that. Though imperfectly resolved, Final Payments is clearly the work of a gifted novelist, a writer whose stylistic attainments are on a level with her intelligence and insight. The story of the venturing into life of a “good Catholic girl” of thirty, who had devoted the previous eleven years to the unremitting care of her once formidable, then invalided, father, was in itself moving, and the moral perplexities she faced were handled with subtlety, humor, and compassion until the plot took a melodramatic turn that damaged the credibility of the last third of the book. Her new novel, The Company of Women, is likewise a fascinating document, likewise a work at once excellent and flawed. Though it is to some degree a reworking of the themes of the earlier novel, The Company of Women is, in its structure and scope, a very different sort of book.

The company referred to in the title consists of five middle-aged, sexually inactive Catholic women—two virgins, two widows, and the undivorced wife of a hopelessly insane man who had barely consummated his marriage before being institutionalized—permanently. Their status and occupations vary: the robust and wisecracking Charlotte works in an insurance office in Brooklyn: the delicate, impractical Elizabeth teaches school and reads Jane Austen; Clare, the only one with real money, manages a successful leather-goods business inherited from her father; Mary Rose, an usher in a Broadway movie house, maintains a friendly, platonic relationship with the theater's Jewish manager; and Muriel, embittered and envious, takes in typing and looks after her mother until the latter dies.

Somewhat reminiscent of the spinsterish Anglicans who populate the novels of Barbara Pym, these women are united not by temperament or background but by a common devotion to a spellbinding priest, Father Cyprian, who from 1932 to the Second World War conducted weekend retreats for working women. He has helped each one of the company in a time of crisis; he dominates them, exhorts them, feeds upon their love, and makes them (these “lame ducks no man wanted”) feel, collectively, that they are “something.” Ferociously right-wing, he detests the modern world and insists that there is no salvation outside the Church; scorning interfaith cooperation, “he would not let souls under his care risk eternal damnation to swim with Methodists, eat hot dogs with Baptists.”

The offspring, so to speak, of the intense bonding between the women and Father Cyprian is Charlotte's daughter Felicitas, who is fourteen when we meet her in 1963. She is the pivotal figure of the novel. Left fatherless at the age of six months, Felicitas is the only child of the whole group, and as such she is the repository of the hopes and love of all the women except for Muriel, who like the bad fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” resents the fact that she was not invited to the child's baptism and begrudges the love that is showered upon her. For Father Cyprian, Felicitas is no less than the chosen one, the one who will embody, in her preferably celibate (though not cloistered) womanhood, all that is purest, hardest, and most brilliant in the austere faith that he cherishes.

When the novel opens, Father Cyprian, who has left his order (the Paracletists) in disgust over certain concessions to the slackness of the times, is a secular priest living in his hometown in upstate New York, where, with no church of his own, he sleeps in a furnished room and fills in for sick or vacationing priests. There the women visit him for three weeks every August, bringing along Felicitas; her adolescent feelings for the priest and for the faith are caught in a remarkable passage:

There was no one she could tell about Father Cyprian. It would have been death for her to go a year without seeing him. But how could she say to her friends that the deepest pleasure of her life was riding to the six o'clock mass alone with Father Cyprian in the front of his red pickup? The light then made her see the world as fragile and beautiful. And there was the other light that came through the windows … the light she sat in, praying, with his back to her in his beautiful vestments—grass green for the feria, blue for feasts of Our Lady. She wanted always to be there kneeling, looking at his black shoes below the black cuffs of his trousers and the long white alb. They were serious and blessed and devotional. … Her soul she saw as glass filled with sky or water, as beautiful, as light, as silvery and as important. That was her soul, light let through some transparent thing, cool light refreshed by water. The side of God apart from punishment or care. The God that breathed, breathed over all. The thin, transparent God that barely left a shadow. She watched the feet of Father Cyprian as she opened her mouth. She prayed in her soul for light, a life of light, a life essential as those shoes, as serious.

How could she tell all that to her friends, who were interested that year in TV doctors?

Father Cyprian's feelings for the girl are equally intense. When in the course of an accident (the priest's fault) Felicitas suffers a concussion, Father Cyprian lifts her from the truck, thinking, “If this child dies, then I will die.” His love for her borders on the idolatrous. Yet he can be brutal with her, determined as he is to root out all that is sentimental, soft-headed, or “womanish” in her nature. I can think of few recent novels that begin so brilliantly, with such a plenitude of possibilities in their opening situations.

In Part II we move ahead to 1969-1970. The Second Vatican Council has taken place. Latin is no longer taught at St. Anne's College, to which Felicitas, who wants to major in classics, has won a scholarship; the little college's last professor of classics advises her to transfer to Columbia rather than Fordham. (“A Dominican, be preferred to see her educated by pagans rather than Jesuits.”) By this time, Felicitas is in full rebellion against Father Cyprian and the sheltering company of women, whose lives she now perceives as bankrupt. In a furious argument with the priest over Vietnam, Felicitas maintains that Daniel Berrigan, whom Father Cyprian has denounced as a “snot-nosed limelighter,” is “the only hero in the Church.” Whereupon Father Cyprian stands up and bangs his fist on the table, “making the wine jump out of the glasses and spill like blood.”

He said, “How dare you speak to me like that?”

Felicitas also stood up. It was a foolish move; she was half his size and he bulked above her.

“I speak the truth,” she said.

“You have no humility,” he shouted. “You have been corrupted by this proud and lying age.”

“I was not brought up to be humble. I was brought up to speak the truth.”

“You are a scandal to us all,” he said.

That night he suffers a mild heart attack, the first of a series. Felicitas is sorry but unrepentant. She returns to New York, vowing to change her life.

What follows is nearly as disastrous for the novel as it is for Felicitas. At Columbia she falls slavishly in love with a handsome, posturing professor in his thirties, a self-proclaimed radical spokesman of the “Movement.” A refugee from a life of privilege that included Exeter, Amherst, Harvard, and summers on the Vineyard, Robert Cavendish has left his wife and children and now shares a dingy apartment on Amsterdam Avenue with two emotionally disheveled women, one of whom has a child named Mao. Felicitas moves in—and submits to every indignity and outrage that the hip late Sixties could have invented for a nice Catholic girl.

The professor is given to remarks like the following:

“I mean,” he said, “I didn't know what women wanted because I was completely out of touch with the feminine side of myself. Now I wish I had been born a woman. A black woman. You know who I wish I had been born?”


“Billie Holiday. There was a woman who knew things.”

“I believe she was very unhappy,” said Felicitas.

“Of course, because she lived in this fucked-up culture. God, how I wish I'd been born Third World.”

I will not elaborate on the details of Felicitas's degradation except to say that she ends up on the very brink of performing an act that, particularly in these times, would be considered the most horrendous sin an unmarried, pregnant Catholic girl might be tempted to commit. She pulls back—just in the nick—and the reader, Catholic or not, goes limp with relief.

The whole Columbia section rings false—not because the events described could not have happened, but because Mary Gordon abandons the delicacy of perception and the psychological subtlety that deepens the other sections and indulges in the sort of melodramatic excess that marred the last third of Final Payments. Robert Cavendish is a grossly drawn type, not a character at all; he seems to have been set up, like some mustache-twirling villain in an 1890s shocker, purely for the purpose of harrowing poor Felicitas and her admirers. And Felicitas herself is unaccountably deprived of the rather feisty intelligence that earlier characterized her.

Fortunately for the novel, an effective recovery is made in Part III, which is set in 1977. The company of women, now approaching old age, have reassembled in upstate New York, where Father Cyprian has built, on his family's old farm, a prisonlike house of cinder blocks, with a chapel in which he is able, with the bishop's permission, to perform the Latin mass in private. Their number is intact except for Mary Rose, who, freed at last by her insane husband's death, is able, in her sixties, to marry her Jewish boyfriend. She is greatly missed. Felicitas is there too, and with her is her child. The novel shifts from the third person to a series of first-person monologues in which the women and Father Cyprian sum up their attitudes toward their experience, individual and communal. These monologues are beautifully written and touching; they nearly all deal in one way or another with the theme of reconciliation: to old age, to the fallibilities of the flesh and spirit, to the humbling demands of ordinary human existence at odds with the exaltations of faith, and, in the case of Father Cyprian, to the failure, through spiritual pride, of his priestly mission and to the imminence of death.

The theme of reconciliation—of the need for charity toward oneself as well as toward others—is merely one of the many themes explored in The Company of Women. The role of women in relation to male authority and to the Church, the rhythms of submission and rebellion, the perception of human love as a form of entrapment, the conflicting needs for shelter and escape—such are some of the preoccupations of this most thoughtful of recent novels. This thematic abundance is more successfully realized in short episodes and ruminations than dramatized in the compelling sweep of a major action. Mary Gordon is a reflective, even meditative novelist, and the effective sustaining of a plot is not among her strengths, either here or in Final Payments. There were times when I felt that the themes had escaped the narrative frame designed to contain them and scattered in several directions at once.

The Company of Woman, with its extraordinary marshalling of forces in the opening section, promises more than it is ever able to deliver. Yet there is so much in this novel to admire and enjoy, to make the reading of it memorable. I will conclude with one striking example of Mary Gordon's artistry: her remarkable tact in handling the psychological alignments of the novel without so much as a Freudian nudge in the reader's ribs. She feels no compulsion to comment on or to underscore in any way what can be seen as Felicitas's quest for a father-surrogate or the veiled eroticism in the relationship between Father Cyprian and his flock. The veiling is thick indeed. Father Cyprian examines his spiritual state with great scrupulosity and precision and with never a consciously sexual thought; even his covert misogyny and his longing for an impassioned male friendship (such as he once enjoyed with Charlotte's long-dead husband) are given an entirely religious coloration. His tools are those of Catholic introspection, tools handed down from one priestly generation to the next. And not one of the older women voices the slightest concern or regret over the absence of sexual contact in their lives; better off without it, they would say. It is left for us to meditate, if we choose, upon the odd twists and turnings of sublimation.

Principal Works

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Final Payments (novel) 1978

The Company of Women (novel) 1981

Men and Angels (novel) 1985

Temporary Shelter (short stories) 1987

The Other Side (novel) 1989

Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays (essays) 1992

The Rest of Life: Three Novellas (novellas) 1993

The Shadow Man (memoir) 1996

Spending (novel) 1998

Sally Fitzgerald (review date 19 June 1981)

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SOURCE: “Harsh Love and Human Happiness,” in Commonweal, June 19, 1981, pp. 375-7.

[In the following review, Fitzgerald offers praise for The Company of Women.]

St. Cyprian was a third-century bishop of Carthage, and an outspoken opponent of Pope Stephen's liberality toward lapsed members of the young church. He was martyred, and personally so revered that he was canonized, and his name has for centuries appeared among those of the early fathers in the Canon of the Mass. Some of his overly rigid views and writings were, however, rejected and officially Indexed as teaching error.

Whether or not by design, a modern Cyprian, who plays a central role in Mary Gordon's fine new book, is reminiscent of his ancient namesake. Father Cyprian—pure, elitist, tyrannical, but unquestionably dedicated to his priesthood—has seen his most cherished theological conceptions rejected, and priestly practices altered, by the post-conciliar church. Unable to accept aggiornamento, he can neither live at peace with his Paracletist fellow-monks, nor effectively function as a secular priest, as he attempts to do after leaving his order. The only followers, or friends, left to him are his disprized “goose-girls,” five working women of disparate backgrounds, bound together by their devotion to him, and by the sustaining friendship that has grown up among at least four of their number. The only human being Cyprian can really love is the promising daughter of one of these women, the only child among them. Felicitas is well aware of the strangeness of her upbringing in this circle, of which she is the spoiled cynosure and greatest hope. As a young child, she fully returns Father Cyprian's love for her, even as she comes with time to realize what he will do to her life and mind if she does not escape his overweening presence.

Two of the women of the company are spinsters and two are widows. The fifth is manifestly a victim of Cyprian's purism and high-minded arrogation of authority to himself. Married briefly to a dangerous lunatic, Mary Rose is first saved from harm by Cyprian's practical action of leading her husband to Bellevue and doctors who adjudge him to be hopelessly insane. The priest then decides, however, quite on his own, that she is bound to this hapless marriage because her husband “wasn't insane when (she) married him.” This without reference to expert medical opinion or higher canonical authority. So Mary Rose obediently spends the better part of her life alone and lonely, attended by the kindly old Jewish owner of the theater where she works, who patiently waits for her to be free so that they can marry.

The others, apart from impossible Muriel, whose only wish is to have Cyprian to herself to wait upon, are no less subservient to his thinking. Occasionally restive and resentful, they are nonetheless faithful to him as mentor and attentive to his personal needs. Neither he nor they seem to realize that he is as dependent upon them as they are upon him. Clare is a well-off career woman in New York, who has inherited from her father a high-fashion leather business which she conducts with taste and acumen. Cyprian's highest praise of her is that she “thinks like a man,” and he is of course incapable of understanding that this implies an affront both to herself and her friends. “Womanish” is to him a pejorative term. Elizabeth is a gentle, fearful, but humorous schoolteacher, deserted by her husband after the death of their child. Bookish and bemused, she finds in Charlotte, the rough-tongued mother of Felicitas, a personality who calms her fears and provides the common sense, reciprocal humor, and reassuring warmth she needs to stay them. Charlotte, “whose real genius lay in never longing for what did not seem accessible,” takes life as it comes, and deals with it effectively. Cyprian has offended her unforgivably (as, in one way or another, he has offended all these women) by the suggestion that he mourns the death of her husband far more than she. As she realizes, what he really mourns is her marriage to a friend of his, a former seminarian whom he has hoped to make his own disciple. Still, like the rest, she can not only forgive him, she would die for him.

“The salt of the earth,” Cyprian calls her. She knows that this means he thinks she is stupid. “He had to do that with people, have that one little sentence about everyone, as if he couldn't remember who was who without it. She was the salt of the earth and Elizabeth was one of God's doves and Clare had a mind like a man's and Mary Rose was a ray of sunlight and Muriel was an extraordinary soul: Something in Cyprian made him do that, as if he had to pin people down so he wouldn't lose track of anybody.

In other words, Cyprian fits everyone into a flat and linear schema of his own. Felicitas matters much more to him than the others, but he sees her with an equally flattening eye: she is to embody the realization of all his hopes. Brilliant, studious, malleable, she is to be formed by himself into an infallible Héloise, or a Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin, Doctor of the Church. He would make of her a denatured, desexed disciple, a mind perfected in his own image. But Felicitas, even at fourteen and still passionately devoted to him despite her growing rage, knows herself better, and his hopes scarcely resemble her own. She is able to appreciate and return the love her mother's other friends surround her with, but she knows that she can find no model for her own life in theirs. At nineteen, now fully defiant, she crashes through all plans to send her off to absorb further “Catholic” education and persuades her mother to let her go to Columbia University instead.

Here, by one of the awful accidents, or designs, of love, she encounters a very different sort of man, a fatally handsome, and fatuous, professor of modern political philosophy, Robert Cavendish. He has likewise been able to attract to himself a company of women, but far more slavish women, who live in the seraglio he has set up in the process of freeing them from the old—or any—order of existence. Pitiable, empty, without dignity or real hope of any kind, Iris and Sally live at armistice with each other, occupying his apartment with Sally's small son, Mao, whom the mother is careful to present as the product of a causal—free—encounter, lest she bore the professor with the knowledge of his parenthood. Conversation in this household is usually stoned, entirely predictable, and ineffably boring.

Father Cyprian has once terrified, and infuriated, the adolescent Felicitas, when she speaks of her pleasure in the beauty of the natural world, particularly in the fragrance of grasses, on a drive with him in the country one fine summer day. By way of punishment for this pantheistic failure of ‘spirituality,’ he stops with her at the run-down farm of an odious family he knows, where he introduces her violently to the smells which for him represent nature: handsful of cow dung, chicken dung, and pig dung, calling this last the most aromatic of all because, as he tells her, “pigs eat garbage, like the mind of modern man.” Sickened and rebellious, Felicitas vows to herself never to forgive him, and it is a long time before she does. He has set her up for Robert's apparent health and beauty.

In this new establishment, ‘nature’ is exalted in theory, but in terms curiously similar to Cyprian's at the farm. Among her new friends, everything is either “good shit” or “bad shit,” and “getting (one's) shit together” defines acceptable thinking or performance. And again Felicitas has it thrust in her face ad nauseam. Transfixed by this unlikely academic, and with straightforward passion, Felicitas joins his absurd menage as a timid and unloved lover, taken more out of perversity than real attraction or interest on the philosopher's part. There she awaits his summons to bed as it pleases him, when her turn comes. The final indignity he imposes upon her is the suggestion that she further free herself and increase her experience by extending her favors to someone else, anyone else, say nondescript Richard, who lives downstairs with his three dogs, Ho, Che, and Jesus (which, of the nature-lovers, only Felicitas has the wit and will to feed properly and train). Less able to resist Professor Cavendish's guidance than Father Cyprian's, Felicitas obeys, only to find herself pregnant “by one of two men,” as she must tell her mother and, eventually, the daughter who is born to her after she finds herself constitutionally unable to go through with an abortion. She is saved from utter despair by the simple, practical kindness of her mother and her mother's friends, including Cyprian, “people who had rigorously worked to banish instinct from their lives,” but whose love for her, unjudgmental and resilient, makes it seem entirely natural to them to alter those lives in order to help her construct a new and sheltering one for herself and her child.

Even Cyprian rallies round with an offer to help build a simple house for them near the one he has built for himself on the site of his parents' old farm in upstate New York. Charlotte retires and moves there, too, and Elizabeth moves in to help. Clare pays for everything, cheerfully, and eventually begins the construction of her own house nearby. Poor paranoid Muriel, continuing to fume at the breach of her privilege of sole proximity to Father Cyprian, is no more able to love the child, Linda, than she has been able to love Felicitas or the others, but she does what she can, and she is not excluded.

Only Mary Rose leaves the company, to marry her faithful suitor, a week after she learns that her mad husband has finally died. But before she leaves she has “brought with her the one gift none of the other godmothers had brought to the christening,” conventional responses. From Mary Rose and Joe, Felicitas gets the idea that the presence of a baby in the house is a simple pleasure, and for the first time she sees the child as weaker than herself, and as beautiful. Seven years later, Felicitas does not even remember when her life began to change—which is to say, return—and she is no longer desperate. She will marry the village hardware merchant, Leo. She will marry for shelter, she suspects, and to give Linda a father and “an ordinary life.” She wants, too, to be more human, and to escape what she feels to be a growing cruelty of judgment in herself that she hopes will be assuaged by sexual love. She wants for her child a father who doesn't father her as if they were both bodiless, as Cyprian had fathered, driving her to extremes of revolt.

The novel, with the exception of the somehow contrived and unbelievable university scenes, is skillfully and richly narrated in its first two parts. The third part, however, is the finest of the book. It is composed of beautifully written and extremely moving meditations in the distinctive voices of each of these women, and of Father Cyprian, who must in effect now choose death or life, after a heart attack. From these we learn something of the composure each has reached as an unexpected outcome of the ordeal of Felicitas, and we learn that they are all, except hopeless Muriel, happier than they have ever been in their lives. As Charlotte reflects: “There they are, five old women waiting for an old man to die, living in the country with a young woman and a kid. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty goddamn flat. But you can always make your life sound wrong if you try to describe it in a hundred words or less.”

Cyprian, reflecting on himself, and although aware that he, too, is happier than ever before, nevertheless suffers from a sense of failure on all scores, particularly in his priesthood. He is able to see the pride and fastidiousness that have moved him from the outset of his vocation, and to see what a trial he has been to his superiors and fellow-priests. Above all, he thinks about the aging women from whom he has received and accepted so much, even as he despised them all. He realizes how much he has needed them all, and how generously they have responded. He is able to decide that he will pray for the eventual ordination of women. His is a quantum leap in understanding, informed by a new awareness of the inestimable value and sweetness of human love. “I had to learn ordinary happiness,” he thinks, “and from ordinary happiness the first real peace of my life, my life which I wanted full of splendor. I wanted to live in the unapproachable light, the light of the pure spirit. Now every morning is miraculous to me. I wake and see in the thin, early light the faces of my friends.”

There seems less reason than before for him to fear, as he does, that he has betrayed his vocation in favor of the “terrible ringed accident of human love.” Rather, he seems for the first time able to value what he has received, and to return it in kind, instead of forcing upon his friends that which in his vanity he supposed he could give them from his own borrowed splendor. Until he sees the lumen lumens he has always longed for, the “slant, imperfect sun” will suffice to reflect it. He is spared the knowledge of the damage he has done to Felicitas by his dualistic schooling. Nor is she aware of the change that has occurred in him. Ironically, now that he might correct and amplify his previous instruction, she can, or will, no longer talk to him about it. But Cyprian's “grand, impossible life,” or the idea of it, she knows she will always need at the center of her own. He has made his most important point.

In this novel, Mary Gordon has undertaken something considerably more difficult than the subject of Final Payments. Uneven in execution it is nevertheless, I think, an even more impressive work, larger in scope, more deeply perceptive, richer in mystery, than the first book. A bravo performance. Encore, encore.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 20 March 1985)

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SOURCE: “Books of the Times,” in The New York Times, March 20, 1985, p. C21.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers positive evaluation of Men and Angels.]

For Mary Gordon's heroines, the choice between perfection of the life or of the work has always held center stage. Torn between the hope of “ordinary human happiness” and the pure, crystalline demands of an absolute vocation, between a need to fulfill personal imperatives and a need to submerge themselves in some kind of “clear, consuming work,” they've frequently ended up in an emotional and spiritual limbo. Both Isabel in Final Payments and Felicitas in The Company of Women were raised on the romance of religion, on the idea of selfless devotion to a cause, and though both defected from the Church, they would later experience domestic life in the world of men and children as a come-down from the loftiness of their earlier ideals.

In Men and Angels, her fierce, shining new novel, Miss Gordon broadens her concept of vocation to include art, as well as religion—thereby moving beyond the insular, Catholic universe of her earlier fiction—and she also sets forth a new, more generous and humane vision of temporal life. Whereas Felicitas in The Company of Women bluntly refused the promises of romantic and sexual love (“it is for shelter that we marry and make love,” she declared near the end of the book), Anne, the heroine of Men and Angels, embraces, however tentatively, the possibilities of “that other life, beautiful and heavy-scented as a dark fruit that grew up in shadow, the life of the family.”

In doing so, Anne forgoes the consolations offered by the pristine, ordered realms of Art and Religion, and instead acknowledges all the messy entanglements and conditional values of humdrum daily life. Through painful experience, she comes to accept the fact that the heart cannot be moved at will, that it is subject to the vagaries of fate: and she realizes, too, that even the most potent love—between a parent and a child, between a man and a woman—is horribly limited. She can neither protect her children from the perils of everyday life—the hole in the icy pond, the slight suffered at school, the intractable fact of death—nor save them from unhappiness and misfortune.

When we first meet her, Anne has what seems to be a comfortable, comforting life, “ornamented with good fortune, like a spray of diamonds on the dark hair of a woman.” At 38, she's happily married to Michael Foster, a handsome professor at Selby College; she has two wonderful kids, “Darling Peter, Darling Sarah,” and a good job as an assistant director at the college art gallery. In addition, she's working on a monograph about an American Impressionist painter named Caroline Watson—the arc of whose life will come to counterpoint her own.

Writing in dense, lyrical prose that is as richly pictorial in its use of metaphor as Caroline's paintings, Miss Gordon conjures up Anne's world with extraordinary precision. Like Virginia Woolf, she has a gift for tracking the subtle ebb and flow of emotions, the insubstantial moon tide of feelings and moods; and she uses this gift to delineate Anne's inner life and to give the reader a sense of the social and moral rhythms at work in a small college town.

Anne worries, from time to time, that her life in Selby is too placid, that she has ignored her generation's feminist dictates by being mainly a wife and a mother, and her wish for change is soon fulfilled. When Michael is offered a fellowship abroad, she elects to stay behind with the children—in order to have time to complete her study of Caroline Watson. “She had done one courageous thing, had lived without him, had stayed at home to live a separate life while he went away,” writes Miss Gordon. “Why had she imagined that nothing would be risked and nothing lost in the arrangement? It is what her generation always did, expected everything and was always shocked, like children, when something had to be given up.”

Indeed Anne begins to see that all she had once taken for granted is subject to the terrifying flux of modern life. Caroline's story—she abandoned her 2-year-old son to pursue her career, traded a home and family for artistic achievement and a succession of hotel rooms—makes her wonder whether Art and Family are mutually exclusive notions. Her separation from Michael, coupled with the unexpected attraction she feels for another man, throws into question all her carefully packaged assumptions about marriage and fidelity. And the arrival of a pasty-faced au pair girl, named Laura, thoroughly disrupts the tranquility of her home.

There's something vaguely voyeuristic about Laura—she always seems to be eavesdropping, insinuating herself where she's not wanted. And thanks to Miss Gordon's use of shifting points of view, the reader also learns that she's a religious zealot, whose loneliness has twisted the teachings of the Bible into a strange, self-serving doctrine. Laura believes that she is one of God's chosen, that she's been sent to “save” Anne and her children by teaching them “that human love meant nothing,” that “it was only the Love of God that could protect and lead and cover.” In this sense, Laura seems like an extreme version of Father Cyprian in The Company of Woman, who preaches a doctrine of “hate the world and love God”—in her case, though, adherence to an absolute doctrine leads not to idealism but to simple madness.

One of the problems with Laura is that Miss Gordon uses her as a melodramatic device to keep the plot of Men and Angels ticking along—the reader can see the ending coming, a mile off—and to serve this end, she's frequently turned into a caricature of religious fanaticism. Readers may be distracted by other aspects of Men and Angels as well. Miss Gordon's insistence on giving a feminist reading to everything from sex appeal to artistic achievement (Nobody cares, complains one character, “if Monet was a bad father”) becomes tiresome at times; and as in her previous books, her male characters remain mere shadows of her woman. These, however, are fairly minor quibbles with what is essentially a beautifully written and highly ambitious novel—a novel that marks a new turn in Miss Gordon's brilliant career.

Further Reading

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Akins, Ellen. “Worlds of Possibility.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 August 1993): 2, 9.

A positive review of The Rest of Life.

Becker, Alida. “The Arts of Love.” Washington Post Book World (31 March 1985): 6.

A positive review of Men and Angels.

Cooper-Clark, Diana. “An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Commonweal (9 May 1980): 270-3.

Gordon discusses her literary influences, religious views, and the critical reception of Final Payments.

Earnshaw, Doris. Review of Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays, by Mary Gordon. World Literature Today 66, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 349-50.

A positive review of Good Boys and Dead Girls.

Eder, Richard. “Harp Harpy and Her Brood.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (22 October 1989): 3, 12.

A tempered review of The Other Side.

Eder, Richard. Review of Men and Angels, by Mary Gordon. Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 April 1985): 3, 7.

An unfavorable review of Men and Angels.

Flanagan, Mary. “Threnody for Marriage.” New Statesman and Society (2 February 1990): 34.

A positive review of The Other Side.

Gray, Paul. “Daughters.” Time (20 April 1987): 74.

A favorable review of Temporary Shelter.

Gray, Paul. “Meditations on Motherhood.” Time (1 April 1985): 77.

An unfavorable review of Men and Angels.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Great Divides.” New Statesman & Society (28 January 1994): 38-9.

A favorable review of The Rest of Life.

Kakutani, Michiko. “After Faith and Family, Stories of Sexual Love.” The New York Times (3 August 1993): C17.

A favorable review of The Rest of Life.

Kakutani, Michiko. “How Could He Have Been Her Wonderful Father?” The New York Times (3 May 1996): C29.

A positive review of The Shadow Man.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Past Traced to the Present in a Family's Intricate Story.” The New York Times (10 October 1989): C21.

A positive review of The Other Side.

Kaye-Kantrowitz, Melanie. “In the New New World.” The Women's Review of Books VII, No. 7 (April 1990): 7-9.

A positive review of The Other Side.

Knapp, Mona. Review of The Rest of Life, by Mary Gordon. World Literature Today 69, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 139.

A positive review of The Rest of Life.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times (9 April 1987): C25.

A positive review of Temporary Shelter.

Leonard, John. Review of The Other Side, by Mary Gordon. The Nation (27 November 1989): 653, 655.

A favorable review of The Other Side.

Milton, Edith. “Essayists of the Eighties.” The Women's Review of Books VIII, Nos. 10-11 (July 1991): 20-1.

A positive review of Good Boys and Dead Girls.

O'Rourke, William. “A Father Father Figure.” The Nation (28 February 1981): 245-6.

A negative review of The Company of Women.

Phillips, Robert. “A Language for Compassion.” Commonweal (17 May 1985): 308-9.

A positive review of Men and Angels.

Reed, Kit. “The Devlins and Their Discontents.” Washington Post Book World (8 October 1989): 4.

A tempered review of The Other Side.

Ruta, Suzanne. “Feet of Clay.” The Women's Review of Books XIII, Nos. 10-11 (July 1996): 26-7.

A review of The Shadow Man.

See, Carolyn. Review of Temporary Shelter, by Mary Gordon. Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 July 1987): 10.

A positive review of Temporary Shelter.

Sheppard, R. Z. “A Prodigal Daughter Returns.” Time (16 February 1981): 79.

A positive review of The Company of Women.

Skow, John. “Dad Revisited.” Time (27 May 1996): 82-3.

A tempered review of The Shadow Man.

Weeks, Brigitte. “Group Portrait with Felicitas.” Washington Post Book World (22 February 1981): 3.

A positive review of The Company of Women.

Additional coverage of Gordon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 44; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 81; and Major 20th-Century Writers.

Rosellen Brown (review date 29 April 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Wages of Love,” in The New Republic, April 29, 1985, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Brown offers favorable assessment of Men and Angels.]

In one of the Irish writer Mary Lavin's stories, a woman stands beside her dying husband's bed and hears bird-song for the first time in years, “so loud \had been] the noise of their love in her ears.” This moment has always seemed the quintessential expression of the triumph and danger of a fulfilling love, conjugal or parental: even the healthiest of loves can be consuming, limiting, threatening to the world and to the self, which is implacably single. And yet—the question hangs beside its unambiguous but not uncomplicated answer—what is the self without profound engagement with others?

Mary Gordon's third novel, Men and Angels, is a fine amplification of Lavin's paradox. Gracefully written, with a sustained fierceness new to her work, it is complex in its vision of family and motherhood, and pained, finally, at the terms we must make, all of us (for if we are not all parents, we were all once children), with a universe that apportions love and its rewards unjustly.

Anne Foster, possessor of a Harvard Ph.D. in art history and of a household that contains her much loved husband, Michael, and a young son and daughter, is a woman haunted only by the fear that she has too much, has been too lucky, and therefore that she could at any moment lose it all. In this, her 38th year, she is at work with great absorption writing the catalog for an exhibition of the somewhat neglected paintings of an American woman, Caroline Watson, who went to Paris in the 1880s and had the misfortune “to be a merely first-rate painter in an age of geniuses.”

Mary Gordon sends Anne's husband to France on an academic exchange, thus freeing her of the comfortable “noise” of her marriage to hear for the first time the birdcalls of many kinds of creatures. She concentrates on her work for its own sake, and so that “refreshed she could dive back down to the dense underworld, to her children.” She is befriended by Jane, Caroline Watson's formidable daughter-in-law, who, together with Caroline, seems to have thrived on the inadequacy of Caroline's pathetic son, dead early of a lack of love and confidence. Suspecting her perfect husband of a dalliance in France, Anne falls in something like love with a young electrician whose wife's chronic illness makes him vulnerable. (To say this, incidentally, gives nothing away: Gordon, like Marge Piercy and others—perhaps we could go back to Jane Austen—has a formulaic weakness for certain male characters who, even in the face of momentary surliness or unseemly working-class occupations, are graced with aesthetically and morally impeccable habits, princes in disguise.)

The most decisive step Anne takes during this year of ostensible freedom is to reluctantly hire a young woman named Laura, because no mother can accomplish work that demands concentration without someone to help with her children. Unlovely and unloved, Laura arrives out of the limbo of utter homelessness, trusting in the Jesus who commanded that one leave one's parents, taking “neither gold nor silver … nor two tunics nor a staff,” to serve, even to kill, for the Lord, to do anything necessary to advance righteousness in the world. She will, we know from the start, bring the whole house down, though not necessarily in the ways we (or Anne) might fear.

Men and Angels begins in Laura's consciousness, which is fixed, desperate, essentially mad. She has grown up the victim of one of many kinds of child abuse that fascinate Gordon—in this case, the monstrousness of a mother who does not love her and does not dissemble about it. The vengeful havoc Laura wreaks strips Anne and her children of the luck of their lifelong belovedness, of the carefully nurtured perfection of their life.

Men and Angels is lush with the details of family intimacy, unlike Gordon's first two novels. The life of Felicitas in The Company of Women was lived primarily among virgins and widows, under the beneficent reign of a priest who is impossible father and lover to them all. In Final Payments Isabel yields to the patriarchy of her bedridden father, his Irish-Catholic cronies, and their negligent contempt for women. Men and Angels, by contrast, portrays motherhood and wifehood relished in wonderfully seductive detail: “\The children] took turns measuring the cocoa, the sugar, the milk, the pinch of salt … There are my children, Anne said to herself, these are the ones I missed. She could smell their thin high sweat; they should have taken off their sweaters. But it was autumn and she understood their feelings: woolen clothes on such a day were a pleasure in themselves.”

At the same time she recognizes the costs of such commitment: “Marriage muffled, it protected, it made it much more difficult to be generous because you were always kept back a little from the lives of others, and so from feeling their need,” Anne reflects; and she finds that motherhood muffles further. “But now she was a woman with young children; she couldn't possibly do anything dangerous to them. The whole shape of her life must be constructed to make her children safe.” Curious not merely about the work but about the life of Caroline Watson, Anne thinks “yet one wanted to know, when the women had accomplished something. Whom did they love in relation to their bodies? Whom were they connected to by blood? … But it wasn't the fact of connection that was interesting; it was how they got around it.”

What binds all of Gordon's work together, whatever its differences, is her unique fascination with the idea of love and its derivatives, the lovable, the unlovable, the unloved, subcategories as ineluctable as election and damnation.

Most novelists, it goes without saying, entangle their characters in questions of love and the power it gives and withholds: its acquisition, its maintenance, its loss. But the capacity to love and be loved—abstract as a Platonic ideal, however graphic its realization as plot—is a fairly unique preoccupation these days. One thinks of Hawthorne's Tales, perhaps of the woman perfect but for the birthmark on her cheek; or the aftermath of such death-of-the-heart novels as Elizabeth Bowen's, or Antonia White's Frost in May, or Robb Forman Dew's recent The Time of Her Life, which makes the disillusion attendant on a child's loss of love a permanent incapacitating scar. But in those books events befall, they are not inevitable. People choose their fates; the end is not written in the beginning. I can't think of one of her contemporaries who shares quite the same psychological/aesthetic determinism as Mary Gordon, whose vision of a gated kingdom, of a fiery excluding sword raised against the charmless, seems to shimmer in her imagination constantly.

In Gordon's work, loving is not so much a process as it is a state, given like grace; a condition, like beauty, into which one is born. There is no appealing its presence or absence in one's life: it is absolute, untouchable even by the love of God, which “means nothing to a heart that is starved of human love.” That is Mary Gordon's catch-22: for those who are most in need of its light, like flowers in a dark place, no love can penetrate or suffice. They are like instruments whose receptors are damaged, who give out a single mechanical cry of pain and need that, perversely, repels salvation.

In The Company of Women, Muriel, who has “a styptic heart,” envies and resents Felicitas, the child of grace, even as she loves her. In Final Payments, Margaret, representing every ounce of salt and vinegar Gordon can conjure up, the life-denying constriction of nuns without bodies, fights for the soul of Isabel, who has just—barely—leaped free into the pleasures of the contemporary secular world. Finally, in Men and Angels, though the Catholic church is hardly mentioned (Laura represents her own distorted church, a religion of desperation and defensiveness), the agon is still familiar. Anne is elect, as are her children. Laura sues for her love and, losing, guarantees only one thing: that, having laid waste the kingdom of the graced by taking away the certainty of safety and sewing guilt and self-doubt, she will never be forgotten.

The girl's abjectness is echoed many times over. Caroline Watson, the painter whose letters Anne reads with fascination, is a terrible mother. She is given the single-mindedness of the artist too preoccupied to notice that her child is waiting patiently at the door while she works. (In fact it is worse: she hears him but does not respond.) Yet it appears to be her son's innate lack of appeal and force, not merely her need to get a day's work done, that keeps her from loving him. Cause and effect are a bit vague—undoubtedly both are true—yet Caroline at her death shoulders the blame for blighting him. And we are shown, conversely, how the (rather too simple) love of the electrician, Ed, saves his small son from the vagaries of a deranged mother's attentions.

On the way to the novel's conclusion, in which nothing is resolved except that there is no democracy of the affections, and that the emotionally hungry, whom we shall always have with us, will forever endanger the feasts of the fortunate, Gordon draws a hundred small moments beautifully. Anne, at 38, weeps because her parents no longer rush to succor her when she needs them. She buys tulip bulbs in too many colors because she “hadn't the courage for a unified field; she couldn't live with leaving so much out.” Her six-year-old daughter is humiliated in a ballet performance, betrayed only by her youth and eagerness. Anne begins to comprehend the complexity of certain sexual charades, the “lively attentiveness that came only with sex” but might in fact mask other needs. The novel has its flaws—Laura frequently becomes as tedious in print as she is said to be in person, revealing herself to be the contrivance that holds together the skeleton of moral concerns beneath the book's more poignant flesh. The epilogue iterates too explicitly what we have seen, casting a skein of sentimentality over the rest that it doesn't deserve.

But Men and Angels is a beautifully written, passionate inquiry into many kinds of vulnerability and power, and an acknowledgment of the pain of trying to balance instinctual love with a more encompassing compassion. If compassion is inadequate, so be it, Mary Gordon says through Anne: “Perhaps she was an adult now … Children's terror, children's sorrow, was all based on disappointment; adults took their grief from certainty and loss.” Such maturity becomes both character and author. This is Mary Gordon's finest book.

Carol Iannone (essay date June 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Secret of Mary Gordon's Success,” in Commentary, Vol. 79, No. 6, June, 1985, pp. 62-6.

[In the following essay, Iannone discusses the interplay of religious and feminist themes in Gordon's fiction. “Miss Gordon's novels,” concludes Iannone, “are at once the symptom and the artistic exemplification of the empty self-centeredness which happens to have become her subject.”]

Mary Gordon's first novel, Final Payments (1978), about the embattled coming of age of an Irish Catholic woman, was both a best-seller and the object of an astonishingly enthusiastic critical response, in which Miss Gordon was compared to Jane Austen and her novel was called a contemporary version of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. Her second novel, The Company of Women (1981), also a best-seller, met with a slightly less rapturous but still highly respectful critical reception; Francine du Plessix Gray was typical in hailing Miss Gordon as her generation's “preeminent novelist of Roman Catholic mores and manners.” After this novel Miss Gordon announced that she intended to expand her concerns, and indeed her third novel, Men and Angels, is ostensibly not about Catholicism. Except, of course, that it is; only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Mary Gordon's background has supplied her with some unique qualifications to write about present-day Catholicism. Her mother, whom she has described simply as “an Irish Catholic working-class girl,” was the daughter of Irish and Italian immigrants. Her father, David, a Harvard-educated Jew, had belonged in the 20's to the colony of American expatriates in Paris, where he gradually grew disaffected with modern culture. His sympathy with what his daughter calls “the embarrassing side” in the Spanish Civil War led to his conversion to Catholicism, and a tendency to romanticize the Catholic working class led to his marrying Mary Gordon's mother. While his wife worked as a legal secretary, he made several attempts to found a right-wing Catholic periodical while staying at home to care for their only child (no doubt preparing the ground for Mary's later ardent feminism—she has remarked that for her, feminism comes nearest to Catholicism as an informing framework of values). He died when Mary was only seven, but had by then already begun to teach her Greek, philosophy, and French.

Perhaps partially because of the mixed colors of her personal history, Mary Gordon gradually came to resent her confinement in the Catholic “ghettoes” of Queens and Valley Stream, Long Island, where she attended parochial school through the 12th grade. A docile child—she wrote devout tracts entitled “What Is Prayer?”—she became a rebellious adolescent who once organized a bubble-gum-blowing demonstration to harass the “ignorant” nuns she had come to despise. Her bitter provincial exile ended with a scholarship to Barnard. There Miss Gordon began her advance beyond the pale into the mainstream of American life—which for her, it seems, is entirely, eternally, lyrically Protestant. (Her perception of the ethos formed by the two religions sometimes seems a caricature-in-reverse. For her, Catholics are morbid and intensely self-scrutinizing while Protestants are confident, masterful, disciplined, capable of “a deep unstated sympathy.”) It being the turbulent’60s at Columbia, Miss Gordon found more effective ways to protest authority than by blowing bubble gum. She participated in student strikes and sit-ins, and thereby, presumably, gained the social consciousness that filters into some of her work as a liberating alternative to the burdensome demands of Catholic charity.

But Catholicism is not entirely a negative force for Miss Gordon. She has remarked on its profound idealism, and in her novels she depicts a species of Catholic manhood that is fiercely compelling. To her heroines, moreover, she accords a driving passion and qualities of clarity, insight, and penetration that at times can make the Protestants around them seem watery and complacent. Miss Gordon still calls herself a Catholic, or, as she puts it, “I have a real religious life in a framework which I think of as Catholic.” But she doubts the Pope would be pleased with her: her views on birth control, abortion, and the ordination of women are unorthodox, and she has observed that “sexy people” leave the Church. On the other hand, her writing evinces a decided scorn for much of the updated Church of post-Vatican II and a certain nostalgia for the consuming seriousness of traditional Catholicism.

In some ways, Mary Gordon's own story, as well as the story she tells in her novels, is one of upward ethnic mobility. But it is a story with a twist: Catholicism, with its insistent ethic of self-renunciation, can make the achievement of worldly success seem not just difficult or forbidding, but positively evil. This tension between the mutually exclusive demands of the sacred and the profane gives Mary Gordon's writing its all-absorbing, almost obsessive intensity, and may well account for the excitement her work has provoked. In a generation of casually pervasive materialism, her protagonists' struggles to break free of the peremptory, otherworldly claims of the Church and to carve out a share of “ordinary human happiness” must seem both deliciously exotic and monumentally heroic. Without the defining element of religion, the resemblance of her novels to the genre known as “women's fiction” (in which omnicompetent heroines battle through impossible odds toward inevitable triumph) would no doubt have been more readily discerned.

This is not to suggest that Miss Gordon lacks technical skill; quite the contrary. She can be fabulously descriptive; her tightly packed sentences burst with metaphoric energy; her characters can be large, her situations affecting. Reviewers have praised her for all of this—and have as well cited her flaws, which include overwriting, a tendency to fall back on stereotypes, failure to sustain an overall narrative. But it is clear that they are ultimately impressed with something far greater than technical skill. With Miss Gordon's novels, it seems, they enter the presence of something almost, well, holy. A “painful, powerful transforming book, the monster we have all been waiting for,” said the Christian Science Monitor of Final Payments, while the New York Times found The Company of Women to be a vision of “integrity,” “chastity,” “purity, ambition, and grandeur.” Miss Gordon's concerns, asserted Harper's, are nothing less than “eschatological”; according to Saturday Review, she writes about “instinct and reason, submission and authority, the holiness of the flesh, and the awesome power of love to diminish, enrich, and immortalize.” And when they are not agreeably dazzled in this manner, Mary Gordon's critics praise her for freeing us from “the false lessons of the past,” for dethroning “the mythical nobility of suffering,” and for exposing the charity that is really disguised masochism, the morality that is only a cover for hypocrisy.

This, then, with a few emendations and detours, and the determined imposition of feminist ideology, is the substance of the Gordon oeuvre: a muscular prohibitive orthodoxy crusades against a sunny mainline permissiveness, while the heroine, who embodies the best of both worlds, is torn between the righteousness of being Catholic and the freedom of being Protestant.

This struggle appears in Miss Gordon's first novel, Final Payments, in the form of a revisionist treatise on love and charity. Isabel Moore, Irish-Catholic born and bred, has made a sacrifice unusual for the self-seeking generation to which she belongs but (Miss Gordon implies) typical of the Catholic female with dreams of self-denial. When she was nineteen, her adored father, a widower, an ultra-conservative Catholic, and a professor of medieval literature at a small Catholic college in Queens, had discovered her in bed with his favorite student, and shortly thereafter suffered a stroke. Isabel has cared for him through eleven years of wretched invalidism, both hating and loving her self-imposed martyrdom. The novel opens at his funeral, when she realizes that she must “invent an existence for herself.”

Once freed of her burden, Isabel eagerly plunges into the indulgences of the flesh. She sells her house and acquires an I.U.D., then takes on a new job, a new apartment (outside of Catholic Queens), and a couple of lovers (both married, one to a best friend); thirty years of Irish Catholic repression have obviously failed to dim her capacity for the sensual and the sexual. But Isabel soon finds living for the pleasures of this world more than she can bear. The repellent, self-pitying wife of one of her lovers humiliates her and triggers off a terrible episode of guilt and self-condemnation. Isabel determines to return to a life of self-sacrifice. With the willed perversity of the saints who drank the water in which they washed the lepers' feet, she undertakes the care of the aged and impoverished Margaret Casey, a onetime housekeeper for her father and herself.

Margaret is a selfish and sanctimonious woman whom Isabel has always despised but toward whom she still feels an intense obligation. She sets herself the task of learning to love this woman she hates in order to attain the pure, impersonal state of Christian charity. It is a mistake, concludes Isabel, to want to love uniquely and be loved uniquely; better to love “as God loved His creatures, impartially, impervious to their individual natures and thus incapable of being really hurt by them.” But soon it becomes obvious to her that such forced sacrifice is itself illegitimate. At novel's end Isabel dispatches her debt to Margaret and resolves to seek a “reasonable life” of ordinary satisfactions.

Mary Gordon once expressed surprise that a novel of “sacrifice and old age” should have been so warmly received as was Final Payments—as if the esoteric ethic of self-renunciation were not this author's chief appeal. But “sacrifice and old age” are in any event only half the message of Final Payments. The other half is a treatise on how to overcome guilt, cut loose from life's losers, and buckle down to enjoying “the cares of this world” as soon as possible. Thus, much of the book is devoted to Miss Gordon's improvements on traditional morality. When Isabel commits adultery she suffers a sharp backlash of guilt, but the book reminds us that this “sin” breaks up a stagnant marriage and frees one of life's winners from one of its congenital losers. (“I was never any match for her, with all her deprivations,” the defecting husband declares of his whining martyr of a wife.) In Isabel's job as a social worker (investigating home care for the aged), she comes across an old woman ready to commit suicide because of her need for particular love rather than the “generalized charity” she receives; Isabel does not hesitate to help her end her life, once again with the novel's quietly defiant endorsement.

It is here, in the dichotomy between the need for personal affection and the Catholic exhortation to universal love, that Miss Gordon repeatedly focuses her moral attention. But she has stacked the deck. Universal, unconditional love is for her largely the love of and for losers. People love God and seek to be loved in Him mostly because they are tired or defeated or because “their bodies … had not given them sufficient pleasure.” These losers not only lack the courage to risk human love but never had much to recommend them to begin with—no beauty, grace, intelligence, humor, or sensuality, especially no sensuality. (Other models of loser-spirituality include Isabel's father, fanatical and often hateful, and Father Mulcahy, her pastor, loving and loyal but somewhat beside the point. The men of Isabel's choice love “conditionally.”)

Personal human love is for the winners—for those with all the assets plus the guts to ask to be loved for themselves alone and “not for what we share with the rest of the human race.” But once you admit your need for such love, you are vulnerable; “there was nothing worth living for once you lost it.” Hence Isabel's sympathy for the old woman's desire to commit suicide. Life is “monstrous” in its “randomness” as to who gets the good stuff, and in its precariousness as to who gets to keep it, but there you have it; the winners accept the terms.

The problem is that Catholicism asks the contenders to care for the rejects. How to quiet this nagging demand with minimal energy and still stay on the fast track—that is the question that haunts Isabel, who recognizes, correctly, that the charity and sacrifice being demanded cannot be accomplished through a simple act of the will (she does not surmise that it can be achieved through grace). And so she rejects her parochial-school lessons—“Love is measured by sacrifice,” and “Charity suffereth long and is kind”—in favor of something much simpler:

Margaret's life would be more bearable if she did not have to worry about money. And I had money, money from the sale of the house. It occurred to me, simply, that I could give up my money; I did not have to give up my life.

By signing over her entire bank account to Margaret, making her “final payment,” Isabel is freed from pointless self-sacrifice and can begin her own life anew: “It was all the money I had in the world. But I was free of Margaret now, and I felt weightless. … There was nothing left between us. Margaret could not touch me now.”

It seems awkward to have to remind such a self-reflective writer as Mary Gordon that in the very same chapter of I Corinthians from which she draws the title of her third book, Men and Angels, Paul gives a clear warning against precisely this kind of giving: “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor … and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” But Miss Gordon, who so arranges her moral landscape as to make any impulse toward transcendent love seem deluded, aims of course precisely to dismantle charity in its Christian sense. Indeed, even private philanthropy is not her idea of a model system for the necessary redistribution from winners to losers. Isabel's first lover, a pointedly crude, callous, and selfish man, nevertheless “really does a lot of good” in his position as overseer of county welfare programs: more good, it is implied, than can ever be done by trivial acts of self-sacrifice. “Governments gave money and did not ask for love. Money was beautiful … you could change lives without giving up your own life.” Government is a “dealer in charity without the weights of love.”

In her exposé of Christian charity, Mary Gordon thus inadvertently gives us a sudden compact insight into the much vaunted “compassion” of the Left. We may be seeing here just what is impelling so many Catholics to equate their religion with the welfare state: not so much compassion as guilt, and the desire to enjoy life's banquet disencumbered of Lazarus at the gate.

One reason Final Payments needs to be examined in detail is that it fixes the pattern of which Miss Gordon's later novels are progressive variants. The Company of Women, set partly in the pre-Vatican II period, draws the same sort of (loaded) dichotomy between universal and particular love. A group of unattached women, living separately, are linked by the guidance of a powerful conservative priest, Father Cyprian, who has in one way or another helped them, given meaning to their lives, and made them into “something.” This little company places all its hopes for the future on a girl named Felicitas (after “the one virgin martyr whose name contained some hope for ordinary human happiness”), the daughter of one of their widowed members and the only child among them. But Felicitas gradually rejects the all-pervasive spirituality that Father Cyprian would impose upon her. She leaves her mother's Brooklyn apartment for Columbia University, briefly undertakes a radical style of life, gets herself pregnant, and returns to the group to have her baby. At this point the women build themselves houses near the now-retired Cyprian. Felicitas eventually agrees to marry (another man), and little by little begins “to have an ordinary life.”

The novel makes conscious allusion to Jane Eyre, an allusion which Miss Gordon has underscored in interviews. Like Mr. Rochester, Cyprian must be symbolically castrated—Mary Gordon has warned us about her feminism—broken from his obsession with spirituality and made to accept his own need for human love. At the end of his life he is forced to admit that “the love of God, untouched by accident and preference and failure,” still eludes him. As for the particular love of the women who surround him, this is the only real love he has felt—a fact he admits somewhat grudgingly: “They have dragged me down to the middling terrain of their conception of the world, half blood instinct, half the impulse of the womb.” (Such ideas are among the elements that bring Miss Gordon closer to D. H. Lawrence than to the “female tradition” of Jane Austen and the Brontës she seems to believe she belongs to.) So much for putting your eggs in the basket of spirituality.

As for Felicitas, she continues the line, set by Isabel in Final Payments, of criticizing the ways of God to man: “I will not accept the blandishments of the religious life; I will not look to God for comfort, or for succor, or for sweetness. God will have to meet me on the high ground of reason, and there He's a poor contender.” While the older women need a strict Catholicism to fill and order their otherwise diffuse and empty lives, Felicitas manages on what is revealed as a budding feminism. She turns away from sexual “liberation” when she sees how men exploit it for their own selfish pleasure. A graphic description of a mangled abortion, as well as a section telling how Felicitas at first hates her baby and learns to sympathize with abusive mothers, constitutes part of this novel's contribution to feminist suasion. (In Final Payments it was a defense of lesbianism and a glorification of female friendship; in Men and Angels, it is an object lesson in how to combine family and career.)

But the feminism in The Company of Women goes far beyond the promotion of various items on the liberationist agenda to become the new moral imperative. The doomed, savagely devout priest is obviously meant in a way to stand for the old Church itself, which pointedly needs to be cut loose from male spiritual chauvinism—“macho clericalism,” as Miss Gordon has put it—humanized, feminized, and brought down to earth by (the company of) women. If it seems at first surprising that Miss Gordon is no supporter of the post-Vatican II changes in the Church, and indeed mocks many of their manifestations—priests in chinos, sappy new rites of penance, daisy-covered prayer cards, etc.—this is because her real hope for renewal derives from the mystical and salvific feminism evident in The Company of Women. It is the female principle that will save Catholicism from the death of orthodoxy—although how the replacement of one expansive orthodoxy by a second, much narrower one constitutes an improvement, she does not say.

At any rate, traditional Catholicism having been effectively consigned to the ash heap of history in The Company of Women, in her latest novel, Men and Angels, the ideal of an ascendant religious sensibility is no longer embodied in a compelling man like Cyprian, but in a quintessential loser. Laura, a pathetic waif, bruisingly rejected by her family, seizes upon the idea of God's love to assuage the miserable loneliness of her existence. She becomes a mother's helper to Anne Foster, a Harvard Ph.D. in Art History and a winner who is not yet wholly secure about the fact. Anne has been happily making a home for her two children and her husband, a professor of French literature at a small northeastern college, when she is offered (at thirty-eight) a remarkable opportunity to prepare the catalogue for an exhibit of the works of Caroline Watson, an early 20th-century painter (a fictional composite of Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, and Suzanne Valadon), neglected in her own time but now being rediscovered thanks to the current interest in women. Taking the job requires that Anne stay home with her children while her husband goes off on a sabbatical to France.

Anne makes several attempts to be nice to Laura but really comes to despise her—for Laura, pathetic as she is, is also carefully presented as difficult and self-righteous. But Laura, falsely cheered by Anne's outward signs of affection, is so devastated when Anne fires her for negligence that she commits suicide by slitting her wrists in the family bathtub. Later Anne, learning of Laura's unhappy life, mourns her inability to have overcome her hatred of the girl and extend the love that might have saved her. But everyone assures her that such love is virtually impossible (they must have read Mary Gordon's previous novels); no matter how much she suffered, Laura was inherently unlovable.

Anne, like Isabel before her, finally accepts the “monstrous” precariousness of human life—illustrated in various ways throughout the novel—without the consolations of transcendent love. As Laura may or may not be winging her way to the God who let her down, Anne walks bravely away from the gravesite into the beatitude of husband, children, home, and career.

She wept and wept. People were so weak, and life would raise its whip and bring it down again and again on the bare tender flesh of the most vulnerable. Love was what they needed, and most often it was not there. It was abundant, love, but it could not be called. It was won by chance; it was a monstrous game of luck.

Although Anne is presented as having no “religious life,” her tendency to self-scrutiny, her insecurity about her place in the world of achievement, and her fear that she might someday be punished for the “great good fortune” life has handed her put her fairly in the line of Miss Gordon's Catholic heroines. In this novel the fanatical and anti-sensual religiosity has been filtered off into Laura, while the sunny Protestant version of “religious life” is represented by Jane, Caroline Watson's beloved daughter-in-law, a beautiful, intelligent, and proud old woman who lives comfortably by the “senses” rather than by “morals.”

Actually, it turns out that Jane, in an access of guilt over the way she had treated her husband before his miserable, untimely death, had once sought and found forgiveness in God. But her faith is of that highly qualified variety of which Miss Gordon approves: God's love (such as it is to begin with) will ever be “insufficient for the human heart,” it “means nothing to the heart that is starved of human love.” Thus the revisionist charity Miss Gordon advances as a gloss on the famous idealism from Paul that gives the book its title: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

In her novels Mary Gordon goes over the same ground again and again—the precariousness and random unfairness of human existence, its value nonetheless, the right to enjoy it if one is a winner, the nagging problem of what to do with the losers. Miss Gordon's work in some ways resembles those books and articles on “having it all” that are written for women, with their advice on cramming in as much as possible, keeping track of one's needs, making sure they're satisfied, the whole informed by a lurking fear that nothing will really suffice.

Thus in the end the real question is not whether human love will serve in the absence of the divine, for Miss Gordon's books are not really about love at all; they are about the monumental self-centeredness released by the collapse of orthodoxy, the agitated emptiness that finds an expression in movements like feminism. It is a historical irony, no doubt inevitable, that this same agitation should be the presiding difficulty of the contemporary Church as well, with its restless movements and demands and its cries over the “monstrous” unfairness of being poor, of being female, of being deprived. Where there was once some ability to accept the simple grace of God's love even in the face of inequalities, and to work in one's own quiet way for His kingdom, now this entire dimension seems to have been lost, or perhaps destroyed. Yet it is hard to see how all the aimless revisionism, of the variety produced by the Church itself or proposed to it by the likes of Mary Gordon, is going to lead the way back to salvation. For Miss Gordon's novels are at once the symptom and the artistic exemplification of the empty self-centeredness which happens to have become her subject.

Sarah Gilead (essay date Summer 1986)

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SOURCE: “Mary Gordon's Final Payments and the Nineteenth-Century English Novel,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1986, pp. 213-27.

[In the following essay, Gilead compares the theme and structure of Final Payments to the works of Victorian novelists such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. According to Gilead, Gordon reinterprets the moral themes of canonical nineteenth-century women's fiction through the lens of contemporary feminism.]

Mary Gordon's Final Payments may be read as a study of the problem of female identity in a culture characterized by changing, often conflicting moral ideals and behavioral directives. As such, Final Payments considers what the Victorians called “The Woman Question” and, appropriately, borrows or alludes to situations, characters, themes, and titles from nineteenth-century English novels dramatizing similar psycho-cultural crises. But iteration requires difference as well as similarity. Gordon's borrowings of and allusions to the conventions of a prior novelistic era do not reflect a lack of literary imagination, but imply the Bloomian notion that literary invention and authorial self-invention are generated by strong reading one's literary progenitors. Thus, in Final Payments, a parallel emerges between the plight of the heroine, adrift emotionally and socially after the death of her father, and the condition of the contemporary “belated” novelist in quest of authorly identity in the wake of the great traditions of the nineteenth century and modernist novels. Just as Isabel Moore owes “final payments” to her dead father and the traditional moral and behavioral codes he had instilled in her, Mary Gordon owes Final Payments to the “great tradition” of such novelists as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot, a tradition she must both incorporate and modify.

Isabel Moore's first-person autobiographical narrative follows the traditional pattern of the Bildungsroman, in which the protagonist's moral education is dramatized through a series of crises and transformations best understood as rites of passage. Victor Turner's development of Van Gennep's concept of liminality illuminates the multiple significances of dramas of transformation, whether social or literary. Detached from social structure, the liminal passenger undergoes an ordeal in which her or his structural attributes are lost; then is “re-born” into social structure, newly inscribed within its values, meanings, and role functions. But during the liminal period, the individual is free of classificatory systems, is “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” Though enacting a ritual process which will ultimately affirm law, custom, and convention, the passenger may, paradoxically, embody a critique of aspects of social structure. The numerous orphan-narratives of the nineteenth century novel are liminal in precisely this way. The orphan-protagonists of Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës and others are exiles or outsiders with respect to ordinary society, and as such dramatize a serious questioning of the mores, ideals, traditions, and power-structures of that society; but these orphan figures undergo transformations which are representative and symbolic of social and cultural change, and thus imply the possibility of reconciliation between the dissatisfied, disenfranchised, rebellious, or “lost” individual and a society whose injustices and constraints are revealed as ameliorating and thus tolerable: thus, the surprisingly conservative compromises that conclude originally critical novels like Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and Middlemarch.

Isabel Moore as fictional-autobiographical subject and narrator combines the character-attributes of the typical Victorian orphan-protagonist with those of the Austenian narrator. Isabel's narration reveals a self-critical, analytical, clear-thinking mind articulated in elegant, lucid prose. Descendant not only of the Austenian narrator but also of such Austenian heroines as Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot, Isabel's fine intelligence is particularly apt in perceiving the nuanced meanings of social behaviors, styles, clothing, body positions and movements, and facial expressions; and, what convention forbad Austen, in discussing with modern frankness the life of the body (there is delicious mockery both of contemporary interior decor and of Austen in Isabel's observation that her gynecologist's office “would have been a perfect setting for Pride and Prejudice”). As orphan, Isabel, like her Victorian predecessors, bears a more ambiguous relationship to her social environment and cultural heritage that does either the Austenian heroine or the modernist alienated anti-hero. Like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, and other displaced persons in Victorian fiction, Isabel in her initial orphaned condition metaphorically expresses the inadequacy of the moral, social, and psychosexual givens of her traditional upbringing, of her father's and her community's narrow and unreflective conservatism. Yet, like her Victorian ancestors, the very modes in which she conceives and enacts her rejection of that conservatism are permeated by it, and necessitate not flight from but a series of painful confrontations with her past, confrontations which constitute the “final payments” she finds so difficult to make. Isabel's new life is based precisely on those principles and values her father and his world abhorred or misunderstood (social welfare, female independence, sexual liberty, self-actualization). But her newly won freedom leads to what Isabel cannot help but interpret as a reenactment of her sexual crime of eleven years ago, in guilty reaction against which she became her community's exemplar of its conservative religious and social ideals. In forging a new life, Isabel seems destined to reinscribe upon it the patterns of the old. Isabel, like many of the heroes and heroines of Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës, is a victim of the paradoxical mechanisms of guilt, by which intense desire for freedom and pleasure is bred in a life constrained by narrow ideology and limited social experience; but acting on that desire produces the self-punishing guilt which binds the actor even more tightly to the ideological and social constraints she had sought to overcome. The efforts to surmount value-conflicts only exacerbate them. New values, principles, and behaviors cannot simply replace the old; rather, a new formula must be found which can accommodate elements from both old and new. As discussed above, such formulae often underlie the ambiguous “compromise” endings of Victorian novels, and characterize the novels' particular mode of liminality.

Final Payments begins in the traditional fashion of the Victorian novel at a scene of orphaning (as do, for example, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights) in which the absence, death, or impotence of the father implies a whole range of social, cultural, and psychological problems, tentative solutions to which are enacted in the orphaned daughter's or son's liminal processes of mourning, wandering, ordeal, and transformation. Like the sons, the daughters are in quest of a stable social identity, tolerable gender self-concept, and source of moral authority, but are doubly dispossessed, by changing and unstable social structures and codes; and by the patriarchal nature of both traditional and modern culture. Like its Victorian predecessors, the beginning of Final Payments rehearses the heroine's generic, paradigmatic identity crisis whose deferred solutions form the ensuing narrative. For the first few paragraphs, all we know of the orphan-narrator is the fact of orphaning. The reader does not learn the narrator's gender, name, or age, as if the narrator is deprived even of the basic elements of identity-formation. The recounted inability to weep at the father's funeral suggests the broader inability to mourn for a lost or vitiated cultural heritage. Completed mourning both expresses guilt for abandoning or questioning that heritage and transforms that guilt into greater self-knowledge and into the creative energy needed, in turn, to transform the fragments and shards of cultural endowments into usable forms: Isabel Moore's “final payments” to her father's memory and to all that it represents will complete her mourning. Moore's Catholic heritage represents traditional norms and values in general (as Catholicism does occasionally in Victorian literature, for example in Browning's “Bishop Blougram's Apology,” Thackeray's Henry Esmond, Charlotte Brontë's Villette); the priests who were her father's friends and co-religionists image the benevolent paternalism of most traditional cultures—benevolence which is protective and formative, and to which its inheritor is indebted for the very shape and solidity of the self (however illusory that solidity later proves to be). The traditional world of strong fathers represented at the priest-filled funeral of Isabel's father also recalls the passing of each individual's pre-Oedipal infancy, in which strong, idealized parents shelter and nurture the newly forming personality matrix. But the powerful claims of the past, whether cultural or personal, conflict with the need to adapt to change and to assert individuality.

Isabel as product of a “priest”-dominated community and family (her family for many years had consisted solely of her priest-like father and her father-devoted self) had lived out a modern version of the Victorian ideal of self-abnegating woman, who is indeed never “woman” alone but is always care-taking, felicity-making, comfort-bringing daughter, wife, mother, aunt; she is always primarily defined by her relationship to men. (As Mr. Wakem in The Mill on the Floss puts it, “We don't ask what a woman does, we ask whom she belongs to,” Book 6, ch. 8.) For eleven years, until her father's death, Isabel had played the angel in the house, leading a celibate and monotonous life, nursing her sick, then dying, father and indulging herself in nothing but a sense of her own martyrdom. His death fails to free her. The “murderous importance” she still attaches to her father even after his death is murderous in several related senses, suggesting a kind of belated Oedipal guilt for her relief at his death and at her inability to weep for him; murderous too in that her fulfillment of the patriarchal ideal of angelic femininity has murdered eleven years of her life, and possibly more in the future; murderous perhaps in that she senses that to free herself from the intricate, strangling webs of the past, of its guilt and self-mistrust, of its half-acknowledged desires, rages, and fears, will require an act of violence, a radical repudiation or reinterpretation of the ideals, authority-structures, and self-images that had heretofore sustained her. She realizes, “I would have to invent an existence for myself”—such an act of self-generation indeed implying the annihilation of the “father” that had engendered and nurtured her past self.

Like many Victorian literary heroines, Isabel had succumbed to the addictive lures of self-sacrifice: “the day Dr. MacCauley told me about my father's stroke was of my whole life the day I felt most purely alive” because “certainty was mine; and purity; I was encased in meaning like crystals.” But such achieved clarity of meaning also conceals acts of murder. Isabel's martyr's purity freezes nearly to death her ambition, egoism, rage, and sexuality, for all of which she is unable to find legitimate means of expression. Grasping at the opportunity for expiatory self-sacrifice, Isabel had sought in “visible martyrdom” to obliterate the humiliating memory of her father's having caught her, three weeks before his stroke, in bed with a man. Unlike such Victorian martyrs and near-martyrs as Dorothea Brooke, Jane Eyre, Amelia Sedley, and Lily Dale, Isabel with her Austenian analytical skill and post-Freudian conceptual framework is capable of sophisticated interpretations of her own motives. For example, she speculates on the possibility of having constructed, unconsciously, “the scene that would forbid me marriage during my father's lifetime, that would make impossible the one match he might have approved. … It is clear to me now that what I most feared was the possibility of my father's and my relationship becoming ordinary, or even assuming a texture that might seem comprehensible to an onlooker who had not known us all our lives.” But Isabel's analytical superiority affords her no immediately discernible benefits; she seems as destined to “err,” in the double sense of the word, as her nineteenth-century predecessors; better able than they to articulate the nature of her moral, emotional, and sexual problems, she is not better able to solve them.

The dispossessed orphans of nineteenth-century fiction find partial or provisional solutions to their individual problems of identity and to the larger cultural problems by revising the available models for selfhood, and thus both generating individuality and retaining links to the collective past. Similarly, both Mary Gordon as author and Isabel Moore as character/narrator revise their precursor texts in order to formulate their own. Isabel's most problematic relationships (those that reveal her insecurity and confusion) are with men; but in the histories of her relationships with women, Isabel quests for an adequate model of self; just as Gordon models her text on the texts of her literary predecessors, texts such as, in particular, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. For both author and character, revision and reinterpretation are strategies that prove creative, if problematic; for both Gordon and Moore, the sense of the past is a curious compound of intimacy, affection, and ironic resentment; the need to retain continuity with the past does not easily accord with the equally pressing need to avoid being crushed by the burden of the past. Final Payments is indeed, and in many important respects, modeled on prior nineteenth-century texts which it mentions by name; but it is far from being a simplistic or obvious revision of any one of them; the very fact that the text of Final Payments is imbued with aspects of not one but a number of prior texts suggests a complex intertextuality rather than straightforward influencing. Similarly, Isabel cannot simply model herself on a ready-made precursor—as for many nineteenth-century heroines, Isabel's orphanhood represents the absence of any fully adequate model of female selfhood, a lack which necessitates the heroine's ensuing narrative history as quest for such a model or for some personality structure otherwise sanctioned by either traditional or contemporary culture. The women of Isabel's past each represent a mode—at best, partially successful—of surviving in a patriarchal culture.

As in Jane Eyre, Isabel's self-narrated history traces her journeyings away from and toward the women who represent her own past as well as various options for the future. Margaret Casey, like Jane's Mrs. Reed, sometimes seems to be a kind of Oedipal mother who rivals, rejects, and breeds guilt in her daughter, and who has mysteriously and nightmarishly usurped the original good mother's place. At a broader level of symbolism, such meanly conventional-minded, ignorant, jealous “stepmothers” are dangerous doubles of their “daughters,” threatening in that they represent a prevalent type of femalehood as ordained by a patriarchal society. As such, they embody a negative identity, subservient to strong, despotic males (Mrs. Reed is terrorized by the memory of her dead husband and slavishly devoted to her tyrannical son; Margaret Casey had been the secretly adoring housekeeper to Isabel's absolutist, “priestly” father). Both Mrs. Reed and Margaret Casey are hungry for power of their own; the only power they acquire is that which they exert over those females even weaker than themselves (the orphan child Jane; the guilt-ridden adult-orphan Isabel). Isabel, like Jane, is forced into a power-struggle with her unmaternal “mother,” a struggle which she can win only at the cost of guilt. For Isabel, as for Jane and other Victorian heroines such as Maggie Tulliver, Dorothea Brooke, and Lucy Snowe, self-assertion, even when defensive, is for women always tainted with illegitimacy, and sooner or later generates its opposite, self-abnegation. Jane's childish rage at Mrs. Reed's coldness and cruelty toward her is an unconscious act of rebellion not only against what Mrs. Reed does but against what she represents: victim of a society which has consigned her to secondary roles, Mrs. Reed is also that society's enforcer. Margaret Casey is not only Mr. Moore's devoted housekeeper, she is the “creature” of the male-dominated culture he represents, a culture which defines female virtue in terms of domestic servitude but which simultaneously valorizes such “male” attributes as enterprise, ambition, individualism, self-aggrandizement, and achievement. Margaret bitterly resents and futilely attempts to quash Isabel's egotism, intellect, and independence; in turn, Isabel fears and loathes with a physical disgust Margaret's emotional, intellectual, sexual, and moral poverty.

As in countless Victorian novels, one's opposite, rival, or enemy is also one's double, a shadow or submerged self; or a criminal, libidinal, aggressive aspect of self. One recalls Orlick's symbolic relationship to Pip (Great Expectations), Uriah Heep's to David Copperfield, Hetty Sorrel's to Dinah Morris (Adam Bede), Madame Beck's to Lucy Snowe (Villette). Isabel recognizes in Margaret the negative image of herself, the image against which she has constituted herself (“I invented myself in her image, as her opposite”). But despite that insight, Margaret remains an embodiment of Isabel's deep-rooted emotional frailty, the guilt and self-contempt that is the obverse of her self-approbation, sexual vitality, and independence. Isabel can name Margaret as her haunting shadow-self, but cannot exorcise her: “She would come upon me, thinking she had surprised me, but she was not clever enough to be successfully furtive. … But she made me feel as if she had surprised me, as if she had found me with my hand somewhere shameful: in the cookie jar, in the money-box, in my own private parts.” And Isabel is repeatedly threatened by Margaret as specter of her own possible future self. Isabel's father's legacy is double: like many women, Isabel has received conflicting cultural signals, having been inculcated with a strong sense of her individuality and a desire to achieve; but also with the paradigmatic Christian ethic of renunciation and self-sacrifice, always applied with special force to women. As different as Isabel is from Margaret, she is aware that her father's traditional world has the power virtually to eradicate the first set of personality components, to foster the second, and has the power to see her as merely another Margaret. Her family lawyer and her close friend Father Mulcahy can visualize no future for Isabel other than that of “paid companion,” as one of the sisterhood of “good daughters who cared for their parents” and, if they were unable to play their ordained roles as daughter, wife, or mother, could be helped through the kindly offices of the Church to play surrogate daughter, wife, mother in some bereft family. Margaret had played, in Isabel's motherless family, a kind of debased governess. Like the many governesses in nineteenth-century English life and fiction, Margaret's role was anomalous, in the family yet not of it. Isabel, after her father's death, is faced with a similar anomalousness, and thinks of her situation in nineteenth-century terms: “If it were the nineteenth century, I'd have become a governess.” Among her almost nonexistant professional qualifications is her capacity for devotion: “What a nineteenth century phrase, ‘that young woman was devoted to her father.’ In the nineteenth century, it would have had a resonance; now, devotion was something dogs had.”

Isabel's final confrontation, discussed below, with her Margaret-double will be Isabel's most critical, liminal ordeal, but Margaret is not Isabel's only significant double. As for Jane Eyre, Isabel's relationships with women form a strangely assorted sisterhood symbolizing a complex self, at once fragmented, conflicted, and in process of change. Isabel is flanked by two girlhood friends, dramatically contrasted with each other, yet both representing Isabel's quest for continuity with the past. Liz and Eleanor, like many pairs of women in nineteenth-century literature, are dark versus light (like Ivanhoe's Rebecca and Rowena, The Woman in White's Marion and Laura, The Mill on the Floss's Maggie and Lucy). Typically, the dark-haired woman is characterized by dangerous or excessive vitality, intelligence, passion, or ambition, whereas the light-haired woman tends to be passive, frail, conventional, and submissive. In Jane Eyre, salient aspects of such contrasting feminine types are present in two of Jane's associates, flanking her in allegorical fashion, Bertha Mason Rochester and Helen Burns. Jane's symbolic journeys leave a succession of houses of the past, with their binding structures of anticipation, routine, and memory; as Jane travels from Gateshead to Lowood to Thornfield to Marsh End to Ferndean, she confronts aspects of herself, each confrontation generating a transformative ordeal. At Lowood School, Jane admires, then emulates, then mourns the frail martyr Helen Burns, who represents in extreme form Jane's “Jane” self, guilt-prone, life-mistrusting, secretly resentful, and self-destructive. At Thornfield, Jane encounters Bertha, the dark-haired, corpulent, powerfully built madwoman in the attic and monstrous version of Jane's “Eyre” (eerie, airish) self. Isabel's Liz is dark haired, energetic, and passionate. She hammers a six-foot long post into the ground for the barn she is building to house her pregnant mare; she adores her female lover; she swims, rides, plays tennis, climbs mountains. Unlike Bertha, however, Liz is witty, tough, and precise. Despite her excessive vitality, she seems a kind of latter-day Elizabeth Bennet living in a parodied version of Pemberley. Liz “was capable of a fine malice; she had a cutting edge like a good French knife.” Liz attributes to both herself and to Isabel “elegant perceptions like heroic couplets.” However, Liz's version of Austenian “regulated hatred” is enriched by her awareness of her un-Austenian potentiality for rage and violence. In contrast, Eleanor is gentle, sexually fearful (“I feel much cleaner when I'm chaste”), and delicately blond (“she had the kind of face that would have driven a Victorian paterfamilias to strangled fantasies”). Liz feels contempt for Eleanor's fragility and passivity; Eleanor fears Liz's sharpness and sarcasm. But the tension between the two also represents Isabel's inner confusion and polarization. Indeed, the three names suggest this, the first syllable of “Isabel” repeated in the “iz” of Liz; the last syllable of “Isabel” repeated in the “el” of Eleanor.

Like Jane Eyre, Isabel's visits at the houses of her female doubles generate further symbolic journeys. Eleanor's apartment is tiny, tidy, and comfortable, an apt emblem for the reduced, almost miniaturized existence Eleanor has invented for herself perhaps as a kind of therapy for the emotional wounds sustained during her divorce, perhaps also as emblem of a defensively avoidant mode of coping with a brutal world. Eleanor, then, represents a passive-defensive model of personality which is a real potentiality within Isabel. Isabel is attracted to Eleanor and to the cosily domestic and male-free life Eleanor offers her \Eleanor: “I had worked out an elaborate fantasy that you'd get an apartment near here, and we'd meet for lunch, and go to concerts and take walks”]. But Isabel is also attracted to Liz and to Liz's house, the structure of self-meanings comprising passionate engagement with life, emotional risk-taking, and self-assertion. Isabel's stay at Eleanor's apartment is enjoyable but brief, and functions as a stepping-stone to the more significant visit with Liz, which leads to Isabel's new job and an apartment of her own: to a provisional, newly furbished set of social and private roles. Both Eleanor and Liz take Isabel shopping for new clothes, during which, naturally enough, Isabel faces her image in a mirror. As in similar “resartus” episodes in Jane Eyre (such as Jane's uneasy trying on of bridal garments), Isabel is also trying on new identities. Isabel experiences, alternately, dismay and pleasure as Eleanor helps her purchase new underwear, slacks, blouses; as Liz lends her an ill-fitting bikini, then takes her to town for a new swim-suit (Isabel's “accidental” forgetting to bring her old swimsuit recalls Jane Eyre's “accidental” loss, when she flees Rochester, of her bundle of relics from her not-yet-assimilated past).

Just as novelistic solutions borrowed from the conservative world of Jane Austen are attractive but inadequate (Liz half-jokingly offers Isabel the role of “aunt to the kids, a sister to me, a confidante to John. … Just like a Jane Austen novel”), so Isabel's bonds with women, necessary though they be, do not in themselves generate a complete self. Isabel needs to confront the male-dominated, larger-scaled public realm. Yet feminine bonding in Final Payments is not merely a regressive, deprived alternative to the social realities invented and legitimized by males; rather, such bonding is both a necessary prelude to surviving confrontation with patriarchal society and an equally necessary supplement to it. Both Liz and Eleanor—despite their intelligence, insight, and warmth—offer Isabel role-models which are only partially successful. Despite their differences in style and appearance, they reveal similar strategies for survival in a society which remains inimical to them and whose limitations they cannot fully overcome. Liz's lesbianism and Eleanor's celibacy imply rejection of conventional gender roles. Yet in other ways, their lives are based on acceptance of things as they are. Liz, despite her high-level energy, critical eye, and lucidity, leads a life which is only slightly less cloistered than Eleanor's. Liz and Eleanor remind the reader also of the provisional solutions to “The Woman Question” in the world of the Victorian novel, and remind us too of the tenuousness of these solutions. In this respect, Liz is a belated version of what might be termed the “domestic” solution; Eleanor, of the “independent spinster” solution. Liz's domesticity is like but even more unlike, say, Dorothea Brooke's marriage to the politically active Ladislaw (Liz's early respect for her politician husband has become contempt and dislike). Eleanor's life recalls but also questions the value of the lives evolved by such spinster-survivors as Lucy Snowe, Nelly Dean, Madame Beck, and Lily Dale. Liz is trapped on her lovely country estate; her relationship with Erica appears doomed. Eleanor is trapped in her apartment. Thumbnail descriptions of their lives imply triviality and loneliness: Isabel observes, “Liz reads a lot of eighteenth-century history and she's building a barn.” Eleanor responds, “And I take baths and read ‘The New York Times.’” Thus, like Helen Burns and Bertha Mason Rochester respecting Jane Eyre, Liz and Eleanor function symbolically as threatening doubles as well as sisterly parallels to Isabel.

The description of Isabel's old house represents her past life as good daughter and her present lack of self-knowledge and self-respect: cluttered, dusty, uncared for, it had always measured her inadequacy in conventional feminine domesticity, but also her uniqueness as her father's spoiled, beloved, intellectual daughter—free of cares and skills ordinarily defined as feminine, but haunted by their lack. Isabel's remorse at her “own neglect of the house and its considerable spaces” (“I sat in the middle of the floor, weeping. I wept for my failure of love for the house that had kept me since childhood”) mourns the irrevocability of the past and laments her present uncertainty. A paragraph beginning with her house becomes a paragraph about her person:

I could have taken care of the house. I could have learned a language or knitting. I could have kept a journal or written a history. For all these years I was a servant to bodies, my father's body and my own, which had spread and softened from languor and neglect. I was always terribly tired.

Isabel's new job, fittingly, requires her to inspect private homes wherein aged individuals are cared for. Each inspection of these physical, emotional, and social structures in some way alters her own. Each visit re-enacts her own years of nursing her dying father, but now she plays the role of observer, a role which symbolizes her gradual adopting of new perspectives on her past. The penultimate house she visits, the Kiley's, most clearly signals her own disordered emotional and moral state. The house and its inmates are nightmarish versions both of Isabel's past life with her father and of her forthcoming sojourn with Margaret. The house features garbage on the lawn, a broken window, the pervasive smell of cat dung; Patricia Kiley, the caretaking daughter, is a twenty-eight-year-old version of what Isabel secretly fears she deserves to become (and will become at Margaret's house), a selfless woman. Patricia has no front teeth (“the mouth of an old woman”), dead eyes, pendulous breasts, a bad complexion. Her mother is “twisted excruciatingly” in a wheelchair, also has no teeth, and, like Isabel's father, her face sags on one side. Like Margaret, although literally, Mrs. Kiley's life is paralyzed and hopeless. The piles of magazines all over the house remind Isabel of her old house: “I understood how Patricia Kiley had let her life become like this. … I understood perfectly, because it was only luck that I had never looked like that girl, and that I read different magazines”—luck she seeks to eradicate by sacrificing herself for Margaret.

Patricia adumbrates Isabel's self-willed transformation into selflessness. As Margaret's care-taker, Isabel neglects herself, gets fat (her own breasts become pendulous), regresses to the simple orality of secret gluttony. But this flight from her married lover, Hugh Slade, and from the pain and guilt caused by their relationship, becomes, as does Jane's flight from Rochester, a liminal ordeal, a slow gathering of forces preparatory to a future transformation which will dramatize her growing maturity, courage, and independence. Jane's ordeal is precipitated by her encounter with the unlikely double, Bertha; Isabel's, by a very different though equally unlikely double, who like Jane's is also her lover's wife. Cynthia Slade, Isabel's rival, is nearly a point for point contrast, blond and stiff-haired, Protestant, middle-aged, and vulgar. Her crude denunciation of Isabel's affair with Hugh articulates Isabel's latent self-dislike, guilt, and the legacy of her father's values. In fact, Cynthia's presence is that of an accusatory ghost of the father, figuring forth the traditional moral authority embodied in the renunciatory doctrine of “thou shall not.” Confronted by Cynthia, Isabel is literally paralyzed: “It did not occur to me that I could move in any way to avoid her; it did not seem possible that I could in any way prevent her reaching me, her doing whatever it was she wanted to do.” As her father's daughter, Isabel thinks, “I could no more refuse my father than Mary could have refused the angel coming upon her, a finger of light.” In contrast, “as Hugh's woman … I would have to calculate each new face I came upon: would it be open to me, or would it see me as the thief, to be cast out?” Although both alternatives depend on a relationship with a male, there is a significant difference between them, the difference between “daughter” and “woman,” between the sanctuary of universal approbation earned by renunciation, and the uncertain life that questions accepted moral norms. As her father's nurse, Isabel “had bought sanctuary by giving up youth and freedom, sex and life”; the certain efficacy of past solutions to the problem of female identity is contrasted to “exposure” to future risk: “I saw myself as the public culprit, the woman carried naked through the town, head shaved, borne aloft in a parody of the procession in honor of the Virgin.”

In accordance with the paradox of liminality, Isabel can strengthen her shaky belief in her own self-worth only by acting out, once more, the contrary role of self-abnegating “daughter.” Isabel's description of her emotional situation appropriately draws upon the liminal imagery of darkness, falling, drowning, withdrawal, numbness, and death. Isabel retreats from life, risk, and choice and into the childish illusion of changeless selfhood: “I knew with my old childhood certainty that I would go on being like this. I was not going to change” (ironic, since she is undergoing critical experiences which will transform her not once but twice, first into Margaret-double and second into autonomous, adult woman).

Isabel's flight to Margaret's house brings about a revised version of Isabel's “good daughter” years of nursing her father. As then, Isabel shops and cooks for the aged and helpless parent (although Margaret is not an invalid, she is arthritic, impoverished, and alone). Unlike then, Isabel receives no recompense in the form of gratitude or love. Nursing the narrow-minded, censorious, embittered Margaret becomes for Isabel “a pure act, like the choice of a martyr's death which, we had been told in school, is the only inviolable guarantee of salvation.” But this purity conceals Raskolnikovian murderousness. At the bus station on the way to Margaret, Isabel sees a hideous old woman reading, of all things, Pride and Prejudice: “The old woman caught my eye and laughed like an animal.” Isabel's mental world is, at that moment, inconceivable in the terms of the Austenian fictional world. The incongruity between the illusory moral purity of her martyrdom and her actual anger and self-hatred is imaged in the incongruity of the repulsive Margaret-like woman's reading Pride and Prejudice, and in Isabel's violent fantasy: “I thought how easy it would be to kill a woman like that. You could lure her with coffee and doughnuts and then poison her or bash her skull in. To watch her die would be perfectly enjoyable.”

Symbolically allying herself with the old, the dying, and the dead; Isabel simultaneously weds herself to the dead past and begins to kill it, to murder her old “angelic” self so that her new complex self may be born. She begins turning into Margaret: “In this light my face too was gray. It was the color of Margaret's face.” She inhabits a world of death, of thick, exhausted, excessive sleep: “I slept too late every morning. And every morning I awoke as if there was a war outside, as if I had only to open my eyes to see the corpses and the shell-shocked wounded. … I feared a face outside the window, dead eyes looking in at me as I pulled out of sleep.” “Dead eyes” recalls both Patricia Kiley, Isabel's proleptic alter ego, and Margaret, her current double. The shell-shocked wounded and the terrorizing voyeur mirror her own psyche, severely wounded by guilt and haunted by the unassimilated past. She cuts her hair, unconsciously fulfilling a ceremony in rite of passage, at once sacrificing her sexuality and vitality, and preparing for future growth. Her new but antiquated “bubble cut,” combined with her thickening figure and dowdiness, make her a bloated parody of Margaret. Isabel re-creates herself in so repulsive an image that she is constrained to kill it, finally freeing herself from the hauntings of the past.

Isabel gains the courage to carry through that therapeutic killing only with the help of a secret literary sisterhood. Wishing to alleviate her boredom and at the same time please and educate Margaret, who likes reading cheap romances, Isabel reads aloud the great romance, Jane Eyre. At the fourth chapter, Margaret stops her: “All that stuff is old hat. … You can tell the person who wrote that was one of those unsatisfied women. Unfulfilled. I hate that kind of writing. It has no life to it.” Enraged, Isabel throws the book on the floor (perhaps inspired by John Reed's throwing a book at Jane Eyre's head in the first chapter of Jane Eyre): “Who are you to criticize Charlotte Brontë?” The realization that she cannot, after all, submerge her own identity comes about when she finds that she cannot submerge her powers of literary discrimination. She knows, even though she had tried to forget, that Charlotte Brontë is better than Regina Carey. Like the child Jane Eyre, Isabel tries to suppress her fury at the meanly domineering woman in whose house she is living as an alien; but just as Jane's anger helps to free her from the prison of Gateshead, so Isabel's helps free her from Margaret's house—that is, from the guilty self-abnegation and self-denial that currently “houses” her personality. But Isabel is not merely acting out a revised version of Jane's narrative. Like both Jane Eyre and Mary Gordon, she herself is able to revise the received texts of her culture. Unconsciously modeling herself on the fictional character created in the feminist countertradition, Isabel also, but consciously, models herself on her own revised interpretation of a biblical text. Thus, she integrates her two heritages, the feminist and the patriarchal, the unauthorized and the authorized. Father Mulcahy, the novel's gentlest representative of the latter tradition, suggests how that tradition may be revised without being violated. He views Isabel's self-sacrifice for Margaret as a sin against the fifth commandment: “thou shalt not kill,” he points out, “means slow deaths, too.” Soon after, Isabel interprets the biblical text, “the poor you have always with you” to mean that pleasure must be taken “because the accidents of death would deprive us soon enough. We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections. We must not try to second-guess death by refusing to love the ones we loved in favor of the anonymous poor.” On Good Friday, she interprets the death of Christ as symbolizing the inevitability of every death: “Christ had suffered in the body, and I too had a body. … Christ had been betrayed by His friends, but my friends had stood by me in a miracle of love when I had ceased to love them.”

Liz and Eleanor overcome their mutual dislike in order to act together as midwives assisting at Isabel's rebirth (which takes place, appropriately, at pre-dawn); and Lavinia's job-offer awaits Isabel. A female community, loose, tentative, and unaware of itself as such is thus very faintly sketched. The early dawn when Isabel escapes from Margaret is “fragile” but also “exhilarating”: “The three of us laughed. … And our laughter was solid. It stirred the air and hung above us like rings of bone that shivered in the cold, gradual morning.” Isabel's reunion with Hugh appears imminent, but the final images of the book show Isabel's pleasure at the loyalty, understanding and sheer physical presence of the two women. Isabel's return to Hugh, like Jane's to Rochester, takes place in her own time and terms; but unlike Jane she will not be wholly defined by her relation to her lover. Equally significant are her friendships with women. Her “final payments” are, in one sense, the final exorcism of guilt vis-à-vis her own paternalistic morality; but are, in another sense, the novel's concluding, if understated, payment of praise to the sustaining power of female bonding.

Escaping from Margaret's house of death, Isabel effects a reconciliation, perhaps a fragile one, between contemporary liberal secularism and traditional Christian morality, just as Gordon effects a reinterpretation of the canonic nineteenth-century British novels by women, preserving elements of their structure and moral themes, but in an era of far greater self-consciousness in the questioning of patriarchal traditions. Isabel's problems in self-invention are paradigmatic for modern women in general and for women writers in particular. Like her Victorian forbears, Isabel is both beneficiary and victim of traditional religious, moral, and social directives and codes, and thus is faced with the imperative need to revise—neither mindlessly to accept nor mindlessly to abjure those directives and codes. Isabel's final act of interpretation frees her from the residual dead weight of the past because she has modified and internalized what for her are still usable aspects of that past. Similarly, Gordon fashions an authorly persona that is partly modeled on, yet not limited by, nineteenth-century literary traditions; that reinterprets, yet carries on and adds to, the feminist literary tradition, itself both canonical and unofficial, partly inscribed in the dominant “great tradition” in order to make itself heard within it, yet continually questioning its suppositions and principles.

Rachel Billington (review date 19 April 1987)

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SOURCE: “Women at Bay,” in New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, p. 8.

[In the following review, Billington offers negative assessment of Temporary Shelter.]

The keening of a frightened and suffering woman is never far from the surface of Mary Gordon's writing. These 20 stories—some long, others only a few pages, some about the Irish immigrant poor, others about the Long Island rich, some imbued with the spirit of the countryside, others set in cosmopolitan London or New York—all carry with them the same atmosphere of fatalistic depression, of lives lived with at best lack of hope and at worst something dangerously threatening.

This theme is most acutely expressed in the second story, just four pages long, called “The Imagination of Disaster,” which is written in a first person, present tense, stream of consciousness narrative. A housewife and mother going about her everyday tasks is obsessed by the dangers of the future. Faced by her daughter wanting help with modeling clay animals, she thinks with terror: “I cannot pervert her life so that she will be ready for the disaster. There is no readiness; there is no death in life.”

The vulnerability that the Gordon woman feels about herself is increased and made obvious through her concern for her children. Temporary Shelter, the long title story, takes this process a stage further and makes the child's terrors central. It is one of several stories where the author speaks with a child's voice and deals with the loaded themes of class and religious differences. It is a more densely worked piece than “The Neighborhood,” where another small, unhappy child, also possessing a single unsatisfactory parent, searches for comfort. In “The Neighborhood” the child finds a moment of happiness with a warmhearted but sluttish Irish neighbor. In “Temporary Shelter” the child steps out bravely into the wide world. In neither case does the black curtain of gloom lift very far.

Adult gloom centers, hardly surprisingly, on the relationship between women and men. The divorced or otherwise single woman, usually with children she must cope with on her own, features in almost every story. “The Other Woman” is the simplest but most effective example. A happily married wife—a unique state in the book, expressed mainly through a comfortable physical relationship—discovers her husband weeping uncontrollably after reading a story about a husband who, out of love for his children, didn't leave his wife for his lover. It has reminded him of a similar sacrifice he made in the past. The happily married wife is horrified at his tragic tears, realizing he has never loved her so deeply. The moral comes out clearly: there is no security anywhere; only temporary shelter.

The alternative to the pain inherent in the male-female relationship is shown through one of the best stories, “Out of the Fray.” Here a newly paired (though much-divorced) couple go to London, where they find a discarded wife. Apparently supremely self-sufficient, she is soon revealed to be emotionally crippled by the breakup of her marriage nearly 20 years ago. Moral: loneliness is as threatening as involvement. “Out of the Fray” is written in the personal, almost diarylike manner that seems to come most naturally to Ms. Gordon. It suits her aim for a high emotional content but tends to limit her to a one-tone voice.

Possibly she is aware of this problem, since one of the longest stories, “Now I Am Married,” is divided into a short prologue and five sections headed by the names of the women who speak. The narrator is a second wife visiting her husband's family in England. The other women talk to her. The technique does get around the problem to some extent, but it also appears as an admission of structural defeat.

Besides, here, as in the other stories, there is no real indication of an authorial point of view—a dangerous lack in stories aiming to be above glossy-magazine level. Perhaps this is another way of saying there is very little sense of morality, of choices made, for good or for ill, of guilt suffered rightly or wrongly, of the struggle to break the barriers of being merely human. Although Ms. Gordon's characters suffer, they do so in a numb and mindless kind of way. She is writing out of emotion, and it suffuses and blurs the writing.

“The Dancing Party” is the most stylishly written of the collection and comes nearest to breaking what seems to be the Gordon mold. The subject is the habitual one, and no less compelling for that, of the pairing or nonpairing of the sexes and is approached with the usual sense of foolish hopes sharpened by impending doom. However, the characters are dealt with separately, and their different thoughts and reactions during the course of the same event are cleverly counterpoised with each other. In one sense the story does Ms. Gordon a disservice because it points up the tendencies in the rest of her writing. Neither wit, irony, satire nor humor is on her agenda, all sacrificed, presumably on the altar of sensibility.

Ms. Gordon attempts to step beyond her limits with “A Writing Lesson.” Sadly, the result is pretentiously obscure rather than thought-provoking: “If you are writing a fairy tale, you can begin by saying that they had built a house in the center of the woods. And they sat in the center of it, as if they were children, huddled, cringing against bears.” Short stories are a testing ground for any novelist, particularly one whose talents lie rather in conveying the intimacies of a woman's mind than in any stylistic finesse. This sort of writing, in which Mary Gordon is most successful, is in danger of becoming indigestible in a collection of short fiction, needing the breadth of the novel form to give it background and air. Nevertheless, Temporary Shelter contains some stories that are touching, and some that are memorable.

Eleanor B. Wymward (essay date Summer-Fall 1987)

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SOURCE: “Mary Gordon: Her Religious Sensibility,” in Cross Currents, Vol. XXXVII, Nos. 2-3, Summer-Fall, 1987, pp. 147-58.

[In the following essay, Wymward examines Gordon's religious concerns in her novels and short stories. According to Wymward, “Gordon's fiction is centered not on a narrowly sectarian creed or tradition, but on the essentials of Christian theology: sin, grace, incarnation, and redemption.”]

Mary Gordon's comments on the liaison between her religious beliefs and creativity have never equalled the boldness of Flannery O'Connor's revelation:

I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means for me the meaning of life is centered on our Redemption by Christ and what I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.

Nonetheless, Gordon willingly provides insight into the context of her religious values. To the question, “Are you still a believing Catholic?”, Mary Gordon answered in a New York Times interview:

I consider myself a Catholic. I have a real religious life in a framework which I think of as Catholic. But I don't think John Paul II would be pleased with it. … I think one of the things that helped me in life is Flannery O'Connor's statement that you must remember that in this day and age one must suffer because of the church and not for the church.

In her first two novels, Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women (1980), Gordon is distinctly Catholic, revealing an identifiable Catholic culture and theology. She laments the inability of the church to respond to a person's deepest spiritual needs, and satirizes priests who are unable to relate scripture to contemporary life. Consequently, Gordon's characters are left largely on their own to confront the terms of their personal salvation. Although the familiar Catholic landscape of Final Payments and The Company of Women is absent in Men and Angels (1985), Gordon's third novel, her theme regarding the neglect of the truth of scripture evolves with complexity and ambiguity. Ultimately, the characters in the three novels do find their center by confronting, through their own efforts, the mysteries of Christianity long obscured for them by rubrics and fossilized tradition. But in Gordon's first collection of short stories, Temporary Shelter (1987), formal religion is ostensibly absent, or, at best, useless when individuals are helpless. Gordon treats religion seriously and one feels her regret, though not necessarily her suffering, when it proves deficient. Her religious sense is basic to her vision of life.

Final Payments, Gordon's first novel, is the story of Isabel Moore, who has sacrificed eleven years of her young adulthood to care for her invalid father, a retired professor of medieval literature from St. Aloysius College. Fiercely conservative, he believed that the “refusal of anyone in the twentieth century to become part of the Catholic Church was not pitiable; it was malicious and willful.” In the meantime, Isabel, without his knowledge, has for years substituted long walks for Sunday mass. During her father's funeral, the Moores' home is “full of priests,” “faceless priests,” Isabel later sees, who “blessed my father's coffin, who had sat at my table, who had never remembered my name.” Gordon's priests live to be served, not to serve.

As a child, Isabel is her father's spiritual prodigy:

My father had once looked at me and said, “I love you more than I love God. I love you more than God. I love you more than God loves you. …” I had studied \my catechism] with pure, delectable absorption. … That absorption gave me the right, at six, to turn to my father and say, “You mustn't say that. It's a sin.” I had been right; it was wrong, what he had said, loving me more than God. I could not love with God's intensity. But I would choose His mode: the impartial, the invulnerable, removed from loss.

This confused concept of love and sacrifice haunts Isabel into adulthood, causing her to experience an intense emotional crisis. After her father's death, Isabel reenters life at age thirty to have some sexual encounters, but her breakdown occurs when she runs from a successful love relationship because of guilt. Always having felt responsible for her father's first stroke because he found her in bed with a young lover, Isabel identifies sexual pleasure with extravagant selfishness. To atone for her sins, Isabel embraces her “father's equation, the Church's equation, between suffering and value” and moves from her apartment to care for the mean-spirited Margaret Casey, who had been the Moores' housekeeper for seventeen terrible years.

In an early review of Final Payments, Maureen Howard comments that “the reader will be tempted to hiss when Margaret comes on the scene, to cheer when Isabel, grown fat, idle and ugly, is saved by her own good sense.” More than good sense, Isabel experiences a religious crisis that jolts her out of her confused notion of sainthood:

I had wanted to give up all I loved so that I would never lose it. I had tried to kill all that had brought me pleasure so that I could not be susceptible. Why had I done it? For safety, certainly, for the priests, the faceless priests. … For them I would give up all I had most savored, those I had most treasured … so that those faceless priests could say, when they thought of me, “She is a saint.”

Isabel is shocked back into life. She rescues herself in a moment where Gordon reveals the action of grace without sacrificing psychological credibility or dramatic technique. After a visit from Father Mulcahy, her father's lifetime friend, Isabel, enraged at Margaret's question—“What were you doing out there with him all that time?“—rightfully calls her a “wicked, wicked woman.” When Margaret counters that she is simply a “poor woman,” Isabel shouts, “‘The poor you have always with you.’” Suddenly finding profound personal meaning in the gospel words she has blurted out, Isabel escapes from the ghosts of her past to pursue a new life in spiritual freedom. For the first time, Isabel understands:

What Christ was saying, what he meant, was that the pleasure of that hair, that ointment, must be taken. … We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of extravagant affections. … And it came to me, fumbling in the hallway for the light, that I had been a thief. Like Judas, I had wanted to hide gold. … I knew now I must open the jar of ointment. I must open my life.

Isabel achieves this liberating insight from within herself, as she draws upon her deepest spiritual resources where the message of Jesus has taken root. The faceless priests who filled her father's home—metaphors for a church which never tries to reach her—routinely “argued about baptism of desire, knocking dishes of pickles onto the carpet in their ardor. They determined the precise nature of the Transubstantiation, fumbling for my name as I freshened their drinks.” Their talk ignores the intrinsic connection between the life of Jesus and the individual person. Theirs is a church consistently quarreling with form, instead of renewing itself through spreading the hope of the incarnation. Preparing for the sacraments as a child, Isabel is concerned “for the perfection of the outward forms. Standing on line for Confession, for Communion, we were careful to keep our spines straight, to fold our hands so that they were Gothic steeples, not a mess of immigrant knuckles.” Twenty-five years later, the priest who hears Isabel's confession after she moves in with Margaret Casey, also is obsessed with form:

“Bless Me, Father, for I have sinned.”

I could see the priest's mouth tighten in exasperation.

“Do you mind not interrupting me during the blessing?” he said.

His boredom is pierced only by Isabel's version of the Act of Contrition. “‘Wait,’ he interrupted. ‘That's not it. You'll have to read it from the card in front of you.’”

Ironically, the Sacrament of Reconciliation offers little promise for Isabel's reconciling herself to living. Isabel is left on her own resources to hear the “good news” which frees her to pursue a new life. After her encounter with Margaret, she builds her strength further by reading the prayers of Holy Week while alone in her room. Refreshed by the Word, Isabel is, nonetheless, distanced from the Good Friday liturgy by having to kiss the giant crucifix: “That was vulgar. I regretted the priests doing that, wiping the feet of Christ with a tissue after the brush of every mouth. I wished they wouldn't do that; it made me wish I hadn't come today.” For Gordon, the Vatican II church offers little promise of revitalization because it sentimentalizes the rich tradition which Isabel draws upon for her cure. Early in Final Payments when Father Mulcahy complains that he cannot adjust to the new church because it feels as if “someone's broken in \to] the house and stolen all the furniture,” Isabel refrains from agreeing only because she does not want to “encourage his regret by making him appear to have allies in another generation.” As her father's spiritual protégé, Isabel prides herself on her reconcilement of the secular and the sanctified, as well as her scorn for pietism and religiosity. She had always despised, for example, Margaret's perpetual novenas and devotions: “I used the missal my father had given me for confirmation. I, like him, followed the Latin of the Mass. … He wrote scornful letters to The Tablet about pastors who encouraged the faithful to say the Rosary during Mass.” But the church of the sixties also neglects the cultivation of aesthetic and intellectual excellence, for St. Stanislaus', the scene of Isabel's confession, looks like a “firehouse, impromptu, unconsidered, American. … I imagined how my father would have stormed through this church.”

If Gordon does not support changes in the post-Vatican II church, neither is she simply nostalgic for the rigor of traditional Catholicism. The Company of Women, her second novel, focuses on Father Cyprian Leonard, an ideological traditionalist, who isolates himself from his religious community to escape the corruption he perceives in the church of the sixties. Instead, Father Cyprian, formerly of the Paracletists, ministers to five single women, three of them widowed, who have remained excessively dependent upon him through various personal crises, since the days when “Father Cyp” conducted popular weekend retreats for working women. Cyprian's milieu is distinct from the world of traditional priest-heroes, for Gordon affirms the importance of women to his spiritual development. Because he has shared so deeply in the lives of the five women who have both comforted and disappointed him, the aging Cyprian gradually acknowledges the “enduring promise of plain human love \and] understand\s] the incarnation for, I believe, the first time: Christ took on flesh for love, because the flesh is lovable. …” Through the company of women, Cyprian celebrates the promise of the incarnation for himself.

To achieve this insight, Cyprian has had to struggle against his personal spiritual orientation which over a lifetime has caused him to substitute guilt for love, pursuing human perfection and scorning human frailty. Shaped by the same legacy Isabel Moore inherited from her medievalist father, Cyprian has yearned to live in “unapproachable light, the light of pure spirit,” the impersonal state of Christian charity. But if life is going to have any truly human meaning for Gordon's characters, they must plunge into the ordinary and treasure the holiness of it. Gordon is therefore no iconoclast. She urges a necessary return to the essential Christian truth of incarnation, a mystery clouded by the guilt that accompanies, in the tradition of the church, a celebration of life. Convinced that the classical ideal of the priest requires detached human interactions, Cyprian suffers considerable conflict:

I have had to be struck down by age and sickness to feel the great richness of the ardent, the extraordinary love I live among. … Now every morning is miraculous to me. I wake and see in the thin, early light the faces of my friends. But I fear that in loving as I do now I betray the priestly love I vowed to live by. There is no way in which my love can be objective or impersonal. … I am pulled down by irresistible gravity of affection and regard. These are the people I love: I choose to be with them above all others. These are the countenances that lift my heart.

Only at the end of his life does Cyprian learn to tolerate his own tender qualities, reconciling his deeply felt tension between the expression of personal and priestly love.

Cyprian renews his capacity for love and faith, especially through Felicitas, the daughter of Charlotte, the only one of the five women who is a mother as well as a widow. All of the women have focused their interests on Felicitas and have great expectations for her, but no more so than Cyprian. Even from her early childhood, Cyprian expects Felicitas to reach exceptional standards of intellectual prowess and spiritual development, just as Professor Moore does for his daughter. Indeed, Felicitas does not disappoint Cyprian, until she becomes a renegade from Catholic higher education. As a student at Columbia, she forsakes her classical studies, is the lover of a sadistic young professor and becomes pregnant. But after years of estrangement, Cyprian blesses Felicitas and grows in love for Linda, her daughter. Finally allowing Felicitas to stand for what she really is, a human being and not a god, Cyprian accepts her imperfection. To accept imperfection is to surrender to the mystery of the incarnation—that God Himself gave new meaning and value to life by living in the imperfect human condition.

Clearly, in his concluding monologue, Cyprian rediscovers the Word of scripture and seeks to participate in the creation of the world by assuming some responsibility for changing the situation of the modern church. Cyprian recognizes, for example, that the meaning of his own life is left finally “in the hands of God, in the hands of a girl,” Felicitas' child, Linda. Because of this deep love for Felicitas, and then for her daughter, Cyprian comes into the presence of grace. Furthermore, interrupting Linda playing mass, Cyprian “was shocked, a girl child saying the sacred words of God.” When challenged by Linda as to why she cannot be a priest, Cyprian thinks “of all the foolish, mediocre men who were permitted ordination because of the accident of sex. And I thought of this child, obviously superior to all others of her age in beauty, grace and wisdom. … And so each morning at my masses, I pray for the ordination of women.”

Cyprian's prayers for the ordination of women might make it seem that Gordon has a hidden agenda in The Company of Women. Her panacea is not simply feminism, however. For example, when Felicitas “grew older, grew rebellious, \Cyprian] knew the bitterest of Jesus' sorrows: the agony within the Agony of Gethsemene, when Judas kissed and the three faithful slept.” Using feminism, then, as her metaphor for change, Gordon asserts that the contemplation of Christian mystery allows the believer to see the world with new eyes. From this perspective, Gordon offers some hope for the future of the institutional church, not consigning traditional Catholicism to the “ash heap of history,” as critic Carol Iannone has concluded. Gordon's quarrel is with a counterfeit church which stretches the dichotomy between the secular and sacred, thus becoming parochial, insular and anachronistic. Repressive policies and practices will change in the Church of Rome, Gordon implies, when the church returns to the gospels themselves as the source of Christian living and inspiration. The final wisdom of Cyprian, for example, is in his insight that belief in the incarnation requires his affirming and renewing the imperfect time in which he lives.

While Gordon's recognizably Catholic scene is not the context for Men and Angels, serious religious conflicts dominate the novel. The message of the title acquired from Paul—“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal”—is left to an unlovable and fanatic evangelist, Laura Post. Nonetheless, Laura serves as a spiritual catalyst, shocking Anne Foster, the protagonist, to confront a dimension of reality she has previously either ignored or denied. In fact, Anne, who prizes herself as a rational woman responsible for her own acts, does not understand people who live a “religious life.”

From the very first page of the novel, the dichotomy between Laura and Anne is established. Flying home from London after having been fired as a nanny for an American family, Laura is not frightened by having no job prospects, for, as she pores over her Bible, she is certain that the Lord will take care of her. A fellow passenger arranges for Laura to meet Anne, an art historian and an academic wife, who needs a mother's helper while her husband Michael is teaching for the year in France, and she stays at home to finish a monograph on Caroline Watson, a neglected American artist.

Obsessively religious, Laura is determined to save Anne, who is more and more repelled by Laura, but tries to compensate for her lack of personal warmth through gestures and gifts. In Men and Angels, Gordon's religious vision and fictional technique are strikingly close to Flannery O'Connor's. Less concerned with the eccentricities of the church which deter one from contemplating the ultimate Christian mysteries, Gordon uses the grotesque character to point out the need for salvation greater than ourselves. To this end, like Flannery O'Connor, she fears the false comforts of liberal compassion sponsored by respectable churches and a highly secularized urban society. Without implying any conscious emulation of O'Connor, one sees in Men and Angels proof of O'Connor's often quoted insight:

Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. … Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the past few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural, and he may well be forced to take even more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. … To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

No doubt Laura's religious commitment is compulsive, obsessive, even “mad.” Anne finds Laura increasingly perverse and unacceptable. Through the dynamics of their interrelationship, Gordon gives credence to O'Connor's perception that if the “good person” is ever to confront the abrasive questions posed by Christian beliefs regarding faith in God, then he must be jolted violently. En route from London, before even meeting Anne, Laura ponders the words of Isaiah: “‘Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she would have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.’” The mother/child relationships throughout the novel allow variations on this theme, but Anne's vision is expanded to include the deeper mystery of family and faith, the interconnection between good and evil. At Laura's funeral, Anne ruminates: “Had Caroline not lived, Laura would not be dead. … Each time now that she thought of her work on Caroline, she would have to wonder if Laura had been its sacrifice. Her death would touch even that. Had she not met me, she might not have died.” This slow growth of Anne's awareness ends in a mild challenge to God as she listens to the words of the psalm:

“I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. …” It was so beautiful, and it was such a lie. … Yet she was glad the priest had read those words. Perhaps it was true for Laura now … or perhaps not. … She had never noticed it before, but the way the priest read it made it clear that the words were a question. From whence cometh my help?

At Laura's funeral, Anne experiences a religious crisis because she confronts the deepest and most conflicting elements of her life. The questions which Anne begins to ask, Gordon does not answer. But in the final paragraph of Men and Angels, Anne embraces the terrible terms of human experience:

She could now say to her children—“This is life. What shall we make of it? For it is terrible, and shining, and our hearts are sore. Something dreadful had happened to us; more will happen; terrible, beautiful, there is no way of telling. And anything might lie and then recoil and strike, in silence, in the darkness.”

Anne experiences authentic renewal, not wholesale conversion. She is not at peace, but she does make an act of faith, investing in the tremendous risk of love, as did Isabel and Cyprian.

Final Payments and The Company of Women offer strong critiques of the church, but both novels end significantly with liturgical rituals, a Good Friday service and Cyprian's private mass. However much the church fades into the background of Men and Angels, it is during Laura's funeral that Anne hears the compelling Old Testament words which move her to accept the mysterious reality of a divine force. Fact and mystery have a chance to be connected in the world of Mary Gordon when one truly hears and ponders Revelation. Gordon implies that any hope for the survival of the institutional Roman Church will be in its ability to make the word of God startlingly relevant to the realities of peoples' lives. Gordon's fiction is centered not on a narrowly sectarian creed or tradition, but on the essentials of Christian theology: sin, grace, incarnation and redemption.

But in Temporary Shelter, Gordon's collection of short stories, the word of God is neither preached nor heard. The characters in these nineteen stories are simply ordinary men, women and children who make up the world. Human as they are, their suffering is private and their victories are quiet indeed. At the core of Gordon's vision is the radical realism which marks Men and Angels: human beings are essentially alienated and alone, needing both hope and love to cope effectively with situations which are central to their individual existences. Characters who awaken to feelings of love and guilt through their suffering, finally assent to the mystery of being and see new meaning for themselves, gaining, in effect, temporary shelter. But throughout the stories, religion is absent or useless when individuals are adrift, and, once again, one senses Gordon's disappointment.

The last short story in the collection, “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year,” includes the celebration of two masses, one attended by Mr. Cassidy at his parish church, and the other a television mass watched and spat at by his senile wife at home. But different from Gordon's novels, the liturgies here bring no measure of peace to these disturbed characters.

Loyal to his vow never to institutionalize his wife, Mr. Cassidy suffers deeply from watching her humiliate herself and him with physical and verbal abuse. After days of enduring shame and curses, Mr. Cassidy kneels “before the altar of God” at Sunday mass and probes the guilt of his married life. Mr. Cassidy “knew he couldn't go to communion. He had sinned against charity. He had wanted his wife dead.” He judges those who stay back from communion with him as being ersatz sinners because they have sinned “from the heat of their bodies … while he sat back from the coldness of his heart. … He had wished the one dead he had promised he would love forever.” One does not expect much from Gordon's “boy-faced priest” who celebrates the mass, but the tone changes to describe his final gestures: “The boy priest blessed the congregation. Including Mr. Cassidy himself.” Mr. Cassidy cannot accept himself, but God does, despite the priest who remains a distant figure.

After leaving mass, Mr. Cassidy spends a violent day at home while Mrs. Cassidy fights off his every attempt to care for her. She finally knocks him to the floor and wanders out onto the street as he writhes with a broken leg. Violence increases when Mr. Cassidy's only means of attracting attention to himself in order to save his wife from “wandering up and down the street in her nightgown,” is to hurl figurines and crockery through the living room windows. “In the dark he lay and prayed that someone would come and get her. That was the only thing now to pray for; the one thing he had asked God to keep back.” Even the most unswerving dedication to another human being, represented by Mr. Cassidy's commitment to his marriage vows, can provide only “temporary shelter” from the vicissitudes of Gordon's human condition.

“Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year” balances the first story, “Temporary Shelter,” where the main character, Joseph Kaszperkowski, a little boy who grows to adolescence, is actually victimized by two controlling adults. Determining his future are his bitter immigrant mother, Helen, and Dr. Meyers, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and a purveyor of pietistic liturgical art, for whom Helen keeps house and where she lives with her son. As a young child, Joseph liked to crawl “on Dr. Meyers' lean, dry lap, a lap of safety. Not like his mother's lap, which he had to share with her stomach.” Joseph and Maria, Dr. Meyers' young daughter whose mother died soon after her birth, share every secret of childhood, especially magic moments in Manhattan with Dr. Meyers at Rumpelmayers and St. Patrick's. Joseph's shelter with the Meyers is temporary, however, for as he grows older, he suspects Sister Berchmans, who hopes Maria will be a nun, of suggesting that he leave the Meyers' haven: “What did she see when she looked at him? And what had she told Dr. Meyers? Or did she never dare to speak to Dr. Meyers; had she spoken only in confession to Father Cunningham, who did the nun's bidding like a boy?”

Joseph's mother, seldom a source of solace for him, is never more cruel than when she remarks, “I guess you're okay to be her playmate, but God forbid anything else. And for a husband, let's face it, he's got something better in mind than some dumb Polack whose mother washed his shitty underwear for ten years straight.”

Dr. Meyers chooses Sunday after mass at the end of a weekend retreat as the moment to tell Joseph of his decision to separate him from Maria by giving Helen a house of her own. Even while saying “thank you, sir,” Joseph silently charges Meyers for being “guilty of the cruelty of sending me away. Of separating me from everything I love. Of sending me to live alone, in ugliness and hatred with the mother whom I cannot love.” But Joseph quickly renews his dream of making Maria “want to marry him before they went to college,” by seeing the advantages of accepting Meyers' offer to send him away for high school: “He would write to \Maria]. And his letters would make her think of him in the right way. Make her think of him so she would love him, want to live with him, the body life, and not the life that rose up past the body, not the life of Sister Berchmans and the white-faced nuns.”

Gordon's ironic eye for the images, tone and atmosphere of the Catholic scene is sharp in “Temporary Shelter.” Moreover, she draws from theology for her ultimate orientation. Characters in “Temporary Shelter” are identified by creed: Meyers, the Jew converted to Catholicism; Maria, the romantic Catholic, curious about Judaism; and Joseph, Catholic since birth. But Gordon does not create characters simply to fit a given solution; rather she presents them in very human situations which are open to theological interpretation. For example, when Maria and Joseph sneak into temple to observe a Yom Kippur service, Joseph feels at one with the liturgy:

He rode the music, let it carry him. The sadness and the loneliness, the darkness and the hope. The winding music, thick and secret. Like the secrets of his heart. … The music that traveled to a God who listened, distant and invisible, and heard the sins of men and their atonement in darkness … but would give back to men the music they sent up, a thick braid of justice and kept promises and somber hope.

Joseph knows that the music which inspires him to embrace the world is different from the singing of the nuns that Maria loved, which made her want to “leave the body life … leave him and all their life together. The men singing in the temple did not want to rise up and leave. And that was why he liked them better. And why she did not.”

This theme is familiar in Gordon's fiction. While her characters, like Maria, yearn to achieve absolute union with God, Gordon simultaneously recognizes that such an ideal can be achieved only by the individual's risking trust in human existence, thus denying faith in the mystery of the incarnation. Although the seventeen stories between “Temporary Shelter” and “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year” may seem to make Temporary Shelter a book which has less religious concerns than the three novels, they reveal Gordon's versatility in probing the human condition. To achieve scope, she allows ordinary persons to confront the mysteries of their own separate lives. She insists upon the uniqueness of each human being, for the enigmas of existence always relate specifically to the individual character. The narrator in “Billy,” for example, expresses a perception that gives thematic unity to all of the stories. After Billy's death, the sympathetic narrator comments that Veronica, his mother, told “the truth to Billy, but too early, and too much. The world is cruel, she told him, it is frightening, and it will hurt you. She told him this with every caress, with every word of praise and spoon of medicine. And he believed her. Well, of course, he would. She was telling the truth; she was his mother.” In each of the stories, characters experience the threat of evil, death and violence. Although life on Gordon's planet is to be embraced, it is lived, at best, in temporary shelters. The young, creative wife in “The Imagination of Disaster,” thinks:

Perhaps I should kill us all now and save us from the degradation of disaster. Perhaps I should kill us while we are whole and dignified and full of our sane beauty. … We live with death, the stone in the belly, the terror on the road alone. People have lived with it always. But we live knowing not only that we will die, that we may suffer, but that all that we hold dear will finish; that there will be no more familiar. That the death we fear we cannot even imagine, it will not be the face of dream, or even nightmare. For we cannot dream the poisoned earth abashed, empty of all we know.

The goal of the artistic imagination, according to Gordon, is to realize with vivid truth all of the mysteries, paradoxes and ambiguities in the total life of the human situation. Thus when the priest in “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year” blesses the congregation, Gordon accepts the premise that the world is a holy place. But faith, for Gordon, survives because it is Catholic and personal, not because of the efforts of the institutional church. Most of the characters in Temporary Shelter do not think in theological or religious terms, but throughout these stories one is aware of an unblinking eye revealing the mystery on which the scene is built, and a consistent voice saying that no alternative exists except to love. The young mother in “Safe,” filled with love for her husband and baby, has the chilling insight: “I could not live a moment without terror for myself. I know that I must live my life now knowing it is not my own. I can keep them from so little it must be the shape of my life to keep them at least from the danger I could bring them.”

To end Temporary Shelter, Gordon adds a concluding essay, “A Writing Lesson,” where she proposes that fairy tales “have within them the content of all fiction. As an exercise, write the same story as a fairy tale, and then as the kind of fiction we are more used to. If you are writing a fairy tale, you can begin by saying that they had built a house in the center of the woods. And they sat in the center of it, as if they were children, huddled, cringing against bears.” At the essay's close, Gordon offers further direction: “Once you have decided upon the path of your narrative and have understood its implications, go back to the beginning of the story. Describe the house.”

While the essay will probably be valued in college writing classes for Gordon's comments on technique, her essential message is, “You must be sure that your values are clear to the reader.” In other words, “Describe the house.” For Gordon, the writer's responsibility is to her craft and to her readers. Gordon's house, then, is no temporary shelter, but one of faith. Faith informs Gordon's artistic vision in a way that Ralph Ellison describes well:

St. Therese says, “I require of you only to look.” Only to look. And this has traditionally been the genius of Incarnational faith when it has been in full possession of its sacramental vision—to empower men to face, without flinching, the arduous welter of nature and historical existence, since, frail though the flesh may be, it was proven by the Incarnation to be stout enough for the tabernacling of that than which nothing is more ultimate—namely, God Himself.

Gordon affirms the incarnate God of Christianity, but, as her canon develops, she loses confidence in the ability of the institutional church to make the message of the incarnation relevant to the problems of modern living. “Temporary Shelter” and “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year,” stories strategically placed at the beginning and end of the collection, provide the context for this perspective. Each of the seventeen stories between them implies that individuals bring order and meaning to their lives by adopting ultimate values which will help them live with, and yet transcend, enduring problems. The milieu of the Irish Catholic home in Final Payments and the Catholic culture of The Company of Women provide a frame of reference for Gordon's religious perspective which frees her from contrivance. In Men and Angels and Temporary Shelter, she moves further away from a readily identifiable Catholic tradition, thus muting her theme of religious affirmation. Unless Gordon finds new vitality in the old liturgical rites and symbols, her fiction will become less recognizable as a celebration of the ultimate encounter between time and eternity. Her affirmation of the beauty, terror and mystery of existence will continue, but the feasts will be secular and the unseen world, perhaps, obscured.

Rosemary Booth (essay date 12 August 1988)

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SOURCE: “A Concentration of Purpose: The Artistic Journey of Mary Gordon,” in Commonweal, August 12, 1988, pp. 426-30.

[In the following essay, Booth discusses Gordon's artistic development and the major themes in her novels. According to Booth, “The ‘motion’ in Mary Gordon's fiction, her novels in particular, has gone from a focus on defining a spiritually adult self, to defining a female self, to defining a parenting, creating self.”]

I guess as I began writing more and more and I began confronting in my writing a lot of the issues which really stemmed from my childhood, I began to see that I had a kind of religious hunger and that I had shaped many experiences in religious terms.

Mary Gordon in Once A Catholic by Peter Occhiogrosso

The poet Galway Kinnell has observed, “Everyone knows that human existence is incomplete. Among those who are especially troubled by this are those who turn to writing \which] is a way of trying to understand the incompleteness.” Mary Gordon's work, more obviously than that of many writers, has evolved as a kind of investigation of this incompleteness. Her three novels—Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Men and Angels (1985)—and book of short stories—Temporary Shelter (1986)—portray interior journeys of seeking. Religious issues have been the impetus for these travels, but not their end, for it is in the compelling nature of human affection and the artist's need to render it that the author finds resolution.

The “motion” in Mary Gordon's writings, her novels in particular, has gone from a focus on defining a spiritually adult self, to defining a female self, to defining a parenting, creating self. The process is an accretive one, like experience, so that the heroine of Gordon's latest novel, Men and Angels, is coping with a residue of issues faced by her predecessors in Final Payments and The Company of Women. By the same process, the author poses increasingly complex problems. Men and Angels thus involves an intricate calculus, one that will yield the answer to an old question: “What am I called to do?”—and its peculiarly twentieth-century corollary: “What are the balances to be struck?” If less satisfying as a novel than the earlier books, Men and Angels is also more ambitious in the scope of the questions it raises.

We see this development in the outpouring of themes that run like rivers through Gordon's novels and stories: the character of love; the sources of moral authority; the duty of parents; and the meaning (and demands) of sacrifice, intellectuality, passion or sensuality, loss, and creativity. The author launches these themes in terms of contrasts, contrasts between male and female, corporal and spiritual, Catholic and Protestant. Her characters often define themselves not by what they are, but by what they are not. Social class is less examined than alluded to, but is also a discernible motif.

The author's Roman Catholic background colors the terms of her arguments and accounts for the courts in which they are debated; that background also explains the seriousness and care with which her arguments are presented. Her heroines hone their own ethics—but in response to an accepted, orthodox mandate—to find a moral solution to their dilemmas. Their eventual understanding of charity, for example, may differ from the one they inherited (though the inheritance always affects how the subject is framed), but they cannot escape constructing a meaning that can be acted on in their own lives.

Mary Gordon says that she is interested in the novel “as a form of high gossip” and that “novels should be about people” (Diana Cooper-Clark, “An Interview with Mary Gordon,” Commonweal, May 9, 1980). Her work, rooted in quotidian topics that carry great weight, from food to clothing, from phone calls to bus rides, reflects that bias. The stories abound in details supplied with the precision implied by a philosophical rootedness in the world and in things (e.g., a child in “Billy” is described as “‘spoiled’ … a terrible word, suggesting meat gone iridescent”), but nothing is at a trivial level. Although Mary Gordon's writing reflects her belief that the function of the novel is to give pleasure, perhaps the overriding note of the texts is her earnestness of purpose. In the short story, “Now I Am Married,” forty-year-old Gillian, a former schoolteacher, notes “Now I've gone back to writing. I don't know if I'm any good. I don't suppose it matters, really. It's a serious thing, and that's important.” Over the decade of her writing, the questions which Gordon heroines confront have changed, but they all obey an urgent imperative to find satisfactory answers.

Mary Gordon's first novel, Final Payments, considers the overwhelming issue of establishing a self, distinct from one's parents, and, in particular, forming an independent moral conscience. The story follows thirty-year-old Isabel Moore in the months after her father's death, starting with his funeral. As in James Agee's A Death in the Family, all of the events are infused with the central fact of a father's dying. Unlike Agee's work, Final Payments is not elegiac in tone but forward-looking, a novel describing the aftermath of an event, not the prelude to it. Having been her father's sole caretaker for eleven years (and motherless since infancy), Isabel is suddenly free—compelled, really—to decide what she will do, where she will live, and, of crucial importance, who she will be.

Isabel searches desperately for an understanding of charity or love, of the way to relate to her fellow human beings, whom she must now engage. The fundamental choice she perceives (albeit an artificially stark one) is between the claims of the body and those of the spirit. Thus, she can indulge her nascent affections by lavishing them on those she genuinely loves, or she can follow what she recalls as the church's exhortation to a higher level of love through self-sacrifice. In the story, Isabel must choose between continuing an affair with Hugh, the (married) man she loves, and moving in with Margaret, who kept house for the family in the years following Mrs. Moore's death, until Isabel came of age and forced the housekeeper out. While the whole of Isabel's caring is for Hugh, she feels compelled—for a while, at any rate—to choose Margaret, to obey what she sees as the stronger moral imperative, that of expiating her father's death by renouncing sensuality and joy in her own life.

Perhaps a novelist raised as a Protestant would have selected a different set of options from these. I think it's also likely that many Catholic novelists would pose the issues differently. After all, in choosing to stay with Margaret, Isabel would have been obeying the letter of the law but not its spirit, hardly a sanctified choice—but this reading gets too tangled. Ultimately, of course, the decision is understood as a broader one (Margaret can be offered a less drastic sacrifice), and this broadening forms the crux of Isabel's growth. Isabel considers the higher calling—to love others “as God loves His creatures, impartially, … without wanting anything in return”—and rejects it in favor of love realized “in the body.” In doing so, she acknowledges her need to be loved for herself alone, in her own body, and in that way accepts herself as human. Isabel essentially refuses austere sanctity in favor of flawed life. This spiritual maturation allows her to cast off at once the moral authority of an anonymous church (“the faceless priests who blessed my father's coffin”) and her guilt over her father's death (“my father had died, but I had not killed him”). In turn, she accepts the role of a person liable to experience pain and loss, because she is willing to risk loving someone whose love she also desires in return.

Final Payments illustrates Mary Gordon's skill at characterizing dilemmas by the use of contrast. In this case, the distinction between the repulsive Margaret and the emerging Isabel sharpens the choice to be made, for Margaret carries the multiple burdens of superstitious beliefs, frumpy appearance, obsolete taste, and a whining demeanor. The descriptions of her are some of the best in the book:

You can imagine how unbearable the brown patches on her skin—they were not moles but large, irregular in shape, like the beginning of a cancer—were to a child, or even worse, to an adolescent. … All her clothes seemed damp, as if her body were giving off a tropical discharge. … Her feet were flat as a flash, except where the bunions developed like small crops of winter onions. The sound of her slopping around the house in her slippers is the sound of my nightmares. … How I hated her method of waking me. … It was Margaret, always, knocking on my door like some rodent trapped behind a wall.

In finally rejecting the old woman's claims, Isabel embraces instead a world of youth, passion, and culture. Although Margaret had nominally been the Moore family housekeeper, it is clear that she had also served psychologically as Isabel's mother, and it was only by rebelling against her mores, attitudes, and even appearance that Isabel could grow up. Unlike Joseph Moore, who had been a professor, Margaret is not an intellectual; her unforgivable sin in the young woman's eyes is to speak disparagingly of Jane Eyre. From the first chapter, Isabel affirms this dichotomy: “Margaret's unattractiveness and stupidity made the shape of my life possible. I always knew who I was; I was not Margaret.”

Isabel's rejection of Margaret is complete, down to the last details (diet, haircut), and her consequent growth is into an acceptance of herself as a passionate, intellectual, and, in the end, loving individual. Yet, because Margaret is also impoverished and dull, Isabel is also renouncing any identification with the social class she represents. Like the slovenly Mrs. Delehanty (“The Murderer Guest”) or slatternly Mrs. Lynch (“The Neighborhood”), Margaret has a self so repulsive as to be grounds alone for rejection. At the same time, since her Catholicism is also of a lesser order (novenas and rosary beads rather than Latin missals and medieval paintings), refusing her is in effect a repudiation of a vulgar approach to religion.

If the heroine is not Margaret, who is she? Gender aside, she is clearly not identical with either of the two “fathers” in the story—the memory of Isabel's own father or the reality of his replacement, Father Mulcahy—who are intellectuals with passionate flaws. In fact, in shirking an alliance with Margaret, Isabel also discards the notions of the authoritarian spirituality she has imbibed from her father and the paternal priest.

The answer is more fully developed by Felicitas Taylor, the central character in The Company of Women. More rambling a story than Final Payments, this novel is also richer in its panoply of characters. The story takes place from 1963 through 1977. Its title invites two interpretations. In one sense, it means group, a reference to the band of five women who revolve like satellites (or disciples) around their energetic, dogmatic leader, Father Cyprian Leonard. One of the women has a daughter (but no husband, who died six months after the child was born), and it is the simultaneous development of this child from apprentice devotee to independent woman and of the priest from unassailable guru to admitted fellow traveler that forms the novel's plot. In a second sense, the title connotes companionship, an allusion to the mutual friendship which exists among the women. The two meanings converge in the corps itself, which is more than the sum of its members, who create, as the novel's epigraph suggests, a “common world between them.”

In a 1981 interview, Mary Gordon described one of her themes in this novel as “the relationship between the male spiritual authority and the female” (Le Anne Schrieber, “A Talk with Mary Gordon,” New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981). On the one hand, there is Father Cyprian, the passionate absolutist, prescribing a view of the world; on the other, there are his middle-aged acolytes, forming among themselves a kind of composite woman. Like Mrs. Hastings in “The Magician's Wife,” the women absorb a feeling of privilege simply by association with the magicmaker.

Though none of the women themselves is remarkable, the collective weight of their personalities compels. Felicitas's attention: “When all of them came together, they were something.” The women are not driven by an ideal, like Cyprian, but rather by their needs, which are ordinary. Their habits vary, from a coarse earthiness, to a penchant for fine goods, to a love of literature, but the sights of all five are fixed on things of the world and they offer models of everyday nurturance. Felicitas is drawn to defining herself in relation to this corporate matriarchy as distinct from the priest, her relentless spiritual mentor, who, ignoring her sex, had singled the girl out to inherit his mantle.

The portraits of the women are wonderfully drawn, neither effusive nor restrained. In their complicated individuality they are sisters to the women in several of Mary Gordon's short stories, “Now I Am Married,” “Delia,” “Agnes,” or “Eileen.” By contrast, Cyprian appears a creature of his tenets and philosophy, and his attraction comes from the authority of the dogma he preaches and its mesmerizing exhortations to heed a bygone tradition. The priest's words resemble those of the American followers of the conservative Archbishop Lefebvre, once described by Mary Gordon as opposing all the elements of modernism, from atheism and communism to liberalism, socialism, and democracy (“More Catholic Than the Pope; Archbishop Lefebvre and a Romance of the One True Church,” Harper's, July 1978).

Through her exposure to a decadent academic-hippie “group” that parodies the Cyprian discipleship, Felicitas grows skeptical of the priest's position and the women's role in perpetuating it. Subsequently, by deciding to bear the child she unwittingly conceives (and whose father is never known), Felicitas signals her decision to join the women, to accept her role as one of them. Ironically, it is by thwarting Cyprian's plans for her as a surrogate son—someone different from the women because intellectual, unsentimental, and independent—that Felicitas gains the moral authority she needs to confront the priest as an equal. She comes to recognize his limitations. “He had three ideas,” she concludes, “the authority of the church, the corruption induced by original sin, and the wickedness of large-scale government. All the rest is instinct and effusion.” This recognition in turn frees her to adopt Cyprian's intensity of conviction, his “compelling sense of the ideal” (New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981), and adapt it for her own imaginative use.

It's hard not to compare Felicitas's perceptions about Cyprian with a feminist perspective on the Catholic church: Here is the elderly priest, whose word is taken without question by his pious handmaidens, dictating their very life choices, even as he derides their “Womanish” religion. The shakeup (such as it is) comes about almost by biological accident—Cyprian is confronted with the fact of Felicitas's pregnancy, and the recognition forces him to accept her femininity. Felicitas's child, who turns out to be a girl (Linda), ultimately augments the female ranks, and in the end Cyprian finds himself “surrounded by the muffling, consoling flesh of women … dragged … down to the middling terrain of their conception of the world, half blood instinct, half the impulse of the womb.” Instead of adhering to his old ideal of “objective of impersonal” love, he will now be “pulled down by the irresistible gravity of affection and regard.”

With Cyprian's capitulation comes a change in the women, too, who must face the end to one kind of ordering in their lives—that provided by a heretofore unassailable leader. They offer varying observations on this development, which can also be read as a spectrum of comments on changes in the church during the sixties and seventies. Felicitas's mother, the practical Charlotte, for example, is unfazed by what has happened, remarking. “You could look at us and say, There they are, five old women waiting for an old man to die … \but] we're a lot better off than a lot of people.” Elizabeth, who spends her days reading poetry, sees the end (and Cyprian's eventual death) “in terms of the breakup of the neighborhood” and prays, “Let things stay as they are.” Clare sees herself as the end of the line, the last of a dying race” and mourns the end of reverence for, “formal rules.” While Cyprian feels defeated by the ascendancy of the female principle and its destruction of this moral ideal, the older women are nostalgic but more or less at peace over it. Felicitas admits to a defiant agnosticism but is philosophical, while her daughter, Linda, is jubilant at the new order. “I am running toward them. They are standing under the apple tree. My mother picks me up and holds me in her arms. My grandmother is laughing. My mother lifts me up into the leaves. We are not dying.”

In The Company of Women Mary Gordon has developed a heroine who secures a female self by acknowledging the strengths and cadences of women and by accepting the fleshly, emotional side of human life. Just as Isabel needed to reject the role of martyr in order to take part in human events, so Felicitas had to refuse that of priest (the isolated, cerebral being) in order to embrace life as a woman. However, the new woman is not permitted one indulgence granted the old—that of dependence on a man. Instead, her maternity brings into relief her responsibility to protect others. “All the people I love are frailer than I,” says Felicitas. “There is no person … for whom I do not have to watch out, who can take physical charge even for a little while. And if the physical charge is mine, the moral charge must be mine also.”

Men and Angels again examines the theme of woman's spiritual role. Laura Post, a self-anointed prophet who preaches the perils of the flesh, is absorbed into the household of art historian Anne Foster, who hires her as a babysitter for her two children. Anne is enraptured with motherhood. The surface struggle is between Laura's and Anne's views of what matters in life: obedience to the spirit (articulated by Laura) or attention to the needs of the flesh (embodied in Anne's children and in her own sexual desires). But in fact a third viewpoint intrudes, that of the neglected, talented, early-twentieth-century painter, Caroline Watson. Anne is hired to write the catalogue notes for an exhibit of Caroline's work, and the duty to one's art or creative calling becomes one of the elements she must reconcile.

It is a particularly poignant issue for a woman, as Mary Gordon herself must realize, because of the conflicting demands posed by children and creative work, such as writing, “Caroline was a woman and had a child and had created art: because the three could be connected in some grammar, it was as though the pressure to do so were one of logic.” Caroline had succeeded in creating great works of art, an achievement Anne admires. At the same time, she faults Caroline for neglecting her son, whom she more or less abandoned and who died young. The development that must occur in Anne, then, is to build a life that tends to multiple dimensions: the needs of her husband and children; the demands of her own body and soul; and the exigencies of her art, the work she is completing on Caroline Watson.

The needs of her husband and particularly her children seem primary. Anne enjoys a “primitive” exultation in her children's bodies, “flesh and flesh, bone, blood connection,” and believes her primary charge is “to keep her children safe.” In this outlook, she resembles other Gordon characters, such as the wife and mother in “Safe,” who says of her husband and baby, “It must be the shape of my life to keep them at least from the danger I could bring them.” Yet after the violent upheaval of Laura's suicide, Anne recognizes that even if she expends all of her energies to protect her children, she will not succeed, for they will necessarily be exposed to events without her, some of them dangerous and all of them carrying risk. In her turn, although she is a mother, she takes part in activities that do not involve her children, realizing that a mother's love is “not all of life.”

Another dimension that engages the author's imagination in Men and Angels is the purely spiritual, personified in the ill-fated Laura. The babysitter moves into the Foster household with the intention of teaching the family “that the flesh was nothing; a mother and her children, all that famous love, was nothing more than flesh to flesh, would drown them all, would keep them from the Spirit.” As for marriage, “the idea of it disgusted her: choosing a partner for the urges of the flesh, in filth creating children to be hurt and caused to suffer.” As the personification of a radical attitude—that the only reality worth pursuing is a spiritual one—Laura is understandable, but as a character she comes across as too thin and bloodless to compel attention. Because she commands so little sympathy, it is hard to feel the attraction of the spiritual perspective that she is intended to represent. Nevertheless, Laura's presence is ubiquitous (every other chapter of the twelve-chapter novel is told from her point of view) and we are forced to notice her, most graphically by her self-slaughter at the novel's conclusion.

Laura is like a young Margaret (of Final Payments), if Margaret were inclined to proselytize. Like Margaret, she lacks love but cannot even command pity, for she exerts no effort to make herself lovable. As a result, it is difficult to feel Anne's guilt and torment at not having loved Laura (or, by implication, having attended enough to her own spiritual needs), for even in life the babysitter seems ghostlike, an anemic imitation of a person. Anne's failure to love Laura, which precipitates the girl's suicide, is even less understandable as a failure of charity than Isabel's disdain of Margaret, for Laura is not only single-minded, but also mute and her hopes, verbalized silently, are seldom shared.

The most credible part of Anne's struggle is in the realm of her work, which she finds absorbing in a different way from her relationships with her family or Laura. Unlike the subjects of Anne's earlier research, Caroline Watson takes hold of the historian's feelings so that in writing about her Anne comes to see her task as that of “build\ing] a house for the woman she loved.” This realization moves catalogue-writing from the category of job to that of vocation, one in which Anne will try to discover the soul of her subject and thus enlighten herself. The product must not only be faithful to Keats's dicta—true and beautiful—but faithful to Anne's feelings, an expression of love. The process of writing promises at the same time to increase Anne's understanding of how to reconcile her own creative needs with her responsibilities to her husband and children. Some distance from them would be required, some cost in closeness. “The truth of the matter was that for a woman to have accomplished something, she had to get out of the way of her own body,” Anne observes. “This was the trick people wanted to know about. Did she pull it off? … One wanted to believe that the price was not impossible, … that there were fathers, husbands, babies, beautifully flourishing beside the beautiful work. For there so rarely were.”

In her essay, “The Fate of Women of Genius” (written as an introduction to a special edition of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and published in the New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1981), Mary Gordon wrote:

Woolf's sense of the writer's vocation is religious in its intensity. The clarity of heart and spirit that she attributes to writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, who have expressed their genius “whole and entire,” demands a radical lack of self and ego that might be required of a saint. Yet the writer cannot, for Woolf, work to be rid of the self.

The qualities that are called for in a writer, Gordon notes in the same essay, require an absence of personal grievance. She lists these qualities as “\s]erenity, selflessness, freedom from rage \words which] recall the mystics' counsels,” but which in Virginia Woolf's case (and in Mary Gordon's) include an appreciation for the body and its pleasures. The artist—perhaps especially the woman artist—remains an outsider. She is like the narrator, Nora, in several of Mary Gordon's short stories, one of whose legs is shorter than the other and who feels herself odd and conspicuous as a result. Disclosure and consequent shame remain a constant possibility. However, in observing the damaged Agnes in a story of the same name, Nora realizes that, in spite of her handicap, “it might be possible to live a life of passion.” What is called for in the artist (or writer) is not to remain aloof from passion, but to capture it in her art.

In the end, Anne recognizes too that her work will require a singularity of vision. She must achieve this, not by abdicating her role as wife and mother (nor by forswearing sensual pleasure) but by undertaking her writing task with a concentration of purpose. If Isabel Moore's fulfillment came through rejecting the role of victim, and Felicitas Taylor's in spurning that of priest, Anne Foster succeeds by accepting a calling akin to that of prophet, not in a religious sense (like Laura), but as someone proclaiming life, in its terrible as well as shining dimensions. She acknowledges in the end her resolve to begin, to:

take her mind, sharpen it, make it single … \to] take the facts that she had learned, the words that there were for them. Join them together. … She would write … \h]ard words, formed words, white stones that she could hold and separate. And then, refreshed, she could dive back down to the dense underworld, to her children, and say, “This is life. What shall we make of it?”

From Isabel Moore to Felicitas Taylor and Anne Foster, the central figures in Mary Gordon's novels reflect a kind of early imprinting with the form and habit of asking religious questions, so that they can never quiet them later, but only dull their sound or attempt to ignore it. She presents people who have been permanently marked with a spiritual dimension. In the vividness of her characters and in the seriousness of their questionings, Mary Gordon has constructed an involving set of works, one that describes the intricacies of a moral life, in terms not exclusive to women but especially compelling for them. Finally, her books reflect Virginia Woolf's exhortation to the woman writer, “Above all, you must illumine your own soul.”

John W. Mahon (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Mary Gordon: The Struggle with Love,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 47-60.

[In the following essay, Mahon examines the depiction of love, family, and personal attachments in Gordon's novels. “Gordon seeks in all her work,” writes Mahon, “to explore how people love, or fail to love, each other in a world where belief in God is either a memory or an inconceivability.”]

Mary Gordon's third novel, Men and Angels (1985), introduces, for the first time in her fiction, a family in the ordinary sense of the word. Also for the first time, she eschews the Irish Catholic subculture that permeates her earlier novels, Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women (1980). Despite this change in focus, Gordon seeks in all her work to explore how people love, or fail to love, each other in a world where belief in God is either a memory or an inconceivability. While the conventional family unit occupies the center of Men and Angels, Gordon's real concern extends beyond Anne and Michael Foster and their children to the wider human community outside their comfortable home.

In the first two novels, Gordon portrays communities where the traditional nuclear family plays little part. Final Payments opens on the day that Isabel's father is buried. Feeling responsible for her father's stroke eleven years before, she has devoted her life to nursing him. Ultimately, the novel is about coming to terms with death and accepting life with all its risks. It is only near the end that Isabel really mourns her father and begins to move beyond her guilt and self-hatred.

The narrative of Final Payments covers the several months following Joe Moore's death. Through flashback we learn that when Isabel is two her mother dies and her father hires the spinster Margaret Casey to keep house. Margaret, an odious, unlovable person, dislikes Isabel and schemes to marry Joe, but Isabel uses her influence on her doting father to secure Margaret's dismissal. For the next seventeen years, until Joe's death, Isabel's family consists of her father, her school friends Eleanor and Liz, and Father Mulcahy. She finds a home with these three at various times after her father's death, until she gets involved with the “saintly” Hugh Slade. Chastened by the violent reaction of Hugh's wife to this latest adultery, Isabel relinquishes self-indulgence in favor of masochistic denial; she moves in with the hideous Margaret Casey, who, as ever, makes Isabel's life an ordeal. In the end, Isabel makes a “final payment” to Margaret by writing a check for all the money her father left behind. She then escapes Margaret in the company of her friends Eleanor and Liz, determined to try again for happiness with Hugh.

In The Company of Women, Felicitas, named for the virgin martyr mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, loses her father when she is six months old. She grows up surrounded by widows and spinsters, all under the domination of the dictatorial Father Cyprian. The importance of community here is implicit both in the title—the working title for this second novel had been Fields of Force—and in the name of Felicitas, which appears in the Canon after these words: “We ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs” (emphasis mine).

In Cyprian's look Felicitas reads the message: “You are the chosen one. Make straight the way of the Lord”; like Isabel she is Mary, not Martha, destined for contemplation and study rather than concern about practical problems (Luke 10:40). Trained in the doctrines and ritual of the Church, Felicitas as an adult will provide her elders with vicarious satisfaction as she defeats the dragons of the secular culture. But the precocious Felicitas chooses to rebel, converts to the counterculture of the late sixties, sleeps with Robert Cavendish and another member of his “turned-on” community, and gets pregnant. Deciding literally at the last minute against an abortion, she returns to her mother, who takes charge and moves them both upstate to live permanently near Cyprian. Eight years after Linda is born, Felicitas elects to marry a local man who is simple but loving: “It is for shelter that we marry and make love.”

In these first two novels, Gordon writes virtual allegories of the search for community and love after the collapse of old certainties. The dilemma is exemplified in the life of Cyprian Leonard, one of Gordon's most important “minor” characters. His baptismal name was Philip, but he took the name of the early Christian martyr Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, when he entered the Paraclete Order. (“Paraclete,” a title applied to the Holy Spirit, means “advocate,” “intercessor.”) Like Felicitas, Cyprian is invoked in the Canon of the Mass. He reacts to change in the Church by growing more conservative, until he feels unwelcome among the Paracletists and begins a long exile, moving from one diocese to another before settling permanently in his hometown on his parents' property. Thus, Philip Leonard rejects his nuclear family to embrace the community of Paracletists: feeling betrayed by change, Cyprian Leonard rejects the community, returns home, and develops his own community, the “company of women” with Felicitas as the promise of a new generation. His reaction to upheaval is rejection; he thus anticipates the rebellion of his protégé, Felicitas, against him.

The experience of Isabel Moore and Felicitas Taylor also mirror those of the Catholic community from which they spring and against which they rebel. Both women spend years in a cloistered existence, and their break with the “cloister” mirrors the experience of Catholicism, especially American Catholicism, following the Second Vatican Council—long years of life in a carefully guarded fortress vanish before the onrush of the secular world and all its blandishments. Both Isabel and Felicitas function on one level as types, confronted with fundamental changes and loss of personal faith, forced to abandon familiar patterns and live outside the Catholic ghetto.

Both women break free of their cloistered environment through sex, an obvious route for repressed Catholic girls of their generation. The strictness of the cloister accounts in part for the extremity of their breaks. Isabel visits a gynecologist to get “some kind of birth control” and chooses the IUD: “Never had I felt such pain, and there was an added sense of outrage in knowing that I had invited it.” Desperate to leave the doctor's office, she makes light of the pain: “I tried to make myself look Protestant.” After submitting in a moment of weakness to the odious John Ryan, husband of her friend Liz, she takes on the kindly Hugh Slade as a lover. Slade, every Catholic's idea of the solid WASP, talks of the “barbarous background” Isabel and her friends had; his unbelievably bland goodness is as grotesque as Ryan's chauvinism.

Felicitas rejects the control of the sternly conservative Cyprian only to fall into the lubricious arms of the odious Robert Cavendish, whose free-love harem is less attractive than the celibate community headed by Cyprian. Already under Cavendish's spell, Felicitas is unimpressed when her “aunt” Elizabeth tells her that Cyprian “loves you so much that he can hardly bear it.” Felicitas responds that Cyprian “doesn't know anything about love.” When Elizabeth observes that “None of us knows much,” Felicitas thinks of Cavendish: “He knew about love.” In fact, love in any meaningful sense is a dirty word to Cavendish, and Felicitas learns to appreciate, if grudgingly, the love and shelter offered by her extended family, the company of women.

Shelter is an important word in Gordon's work, sought by all of her characters with more or less success. (It is no accident that the title for her collection of short stories \1987] is Temporary Shelter.) In the first two novels, love and shelter must be searched for outside the traditional family setting. Both Isabel and Felicitas find themselves members of a family in the extended sense. Struck by Eleanor's jealousy of her friendship with Liz, Isabel realizes, “We are connected. … I am not entirely alone.” Reflecting on the relationship among her friends, Felicitas's mother Charlotte realizes that “there was something between them, between all of them. They were connected to something, they stood for something. … When all of them came together, they were something.” It is this “something” that Felicitas rejects, to seek security in the Cavendish ménage, “more like a family, and Felicitas needed a lot of support.”

In The Company of Women, there is only one nuclear family, the one Cyprian leaves behind to enter the priesthood: “I would not be the son of my father, the brother of my brothers, bumbling and heavy and uncouth. I would be part of that glorious company, the line of the apostles. I would not be who I was.” The few families in Final Payments lack love. Liz and John Ryan find marriage more of a convenience for raising two children than a meaningful relationship. Liz finds fulfillment in a lesbian liaison, while John regularly commits adultery. Cynthia Slade has tricked Hugh into marriage and now taunts him with his infidelities.

The real love in the novel is between Isabel and her friends. Liz loves Isabel enough to confront her on occasion with difficult questions: Why fall for John Ryan? Do you realize the complications involved in loving Hugh? When Isabel retreats into her masochistic shell, it is Liz who tells her to get out of bed and confront life. It should be noted that Hugh, also, tries to jolt Isabel out of her self-hatred. How, after all, can you love others if you do not love yourself? Ultimately pushing Isabel to the decision to leave Margaret Casey, Father Mulcahy offers her money to improve her appearance, reminding her of the commandment against self-destruction.

Isabel's work for the county involves visiting families who are paid by the government to provide shelter for old people. Shelter can be provided, but love is not so easy to come by. Visiting one women, Isabel wishes she could really help but thinks of St. Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 13:4: “Charity suffereth long and is kind”:

That was it, unless you were willing to suffer in your kindness, you were nothing. Barbarous, Hugh would have said. He would have said that most people feel nothing, that you can be kind in simpler ways. But with me I carried the baggage of the idea. Love and charity. One was that feeling below the breast, and the other was doing something, anything, to take people's pain away. I remembered the lettering on a bulletin board at Anastasia Hall: LOVE IS MEASURED BY SACRIFICE. And I remembered thinking how wrong that was, because the minute I gave up something for someone I liked them less.

“Ah,” Sister Fidelis had said when I asked her, “you don't have to like someone to love them in God.”

But who wants to be loved in God? I had thought then, and still thought. We want to be loved for our singularity, not for what we share with the rest of the human race. We would rather be loved for the color of our hair or the shape of our ankle than because God loves us.

Isabel learns that some of the old people are happy while others are miserable. One old man gives her good advice about her relationship with Hugh and asks that, in return, she show him her breasts; she agrees. An old woman spends her days weeping and begs Isabel to recommend her transfer to a nursing home—there she can use the medication she has been saving to kill herself. She has, after all, nothing to live for, with both her son and husband dead: “What I want is to be with someone who wants me. Wants me. …;Or else I want to die.” Isabel agrees to recommend her transfer: “That was charity, then. You let someone die if they wanted to. … If that was what you wanted—someone to love you for yourself more than anyone else (What I wanted from Hugh)—there was nothing worth living for once you lost it.”

In distinguishing between love and charity, Isabel blurs the seamless nature of love in the Christian understanding, which is that God has a deeply personal love for each human being. Christians believe in the uniqueness of the individual and hold the cognate belief that Jesus died not for the race but for each person. The obligation of the Christian is to love others as God has loved each of us. By this definition the real lovers in Gordon's work are the mothers, who would die for their children “without a thought” (Men and Angels); interestingly, Cyprian, not related to Felicitas by blood, feels the same way about her as Charlotte does and as Anne Foster feels about her children.

The “charity” that Isabel practices in exposing herself to the old man and helping the old woman commit suicide is a perversion of Christian love. Through the love of her son and her husband, the old woman has experienced the kind of deeply personal love God has for each individual, but she has failed to find in human love the promise of God's love that would keep her from despair and suicide. Instead of helping the old woman to recognize the richness of the love in her life and to confront the pain of loss, Isabel helps her to opt out and fears the same end for herself if she risks loving Hugh.

Isabel has only a dim sense of what she knows her father would call the “error” in this line of thought and action because, long before her father's death, she has lost her faith. Operating on the purely human level, she tries to give Hugh up and embrace life with Margaret: “If we can love the people we think are most unlovable, if we can get out of this ring of accident, of attraction, then it's pure act, love; then we mean something, we stand for something.”

In fact, if she really loved Margaret, she would recognize her responsibility for Margaret's fate: Margaret reached out for human love with Isabel's father, but Isabel defeated the attempt. If she could love Margaret, Isabel would see her not as an ogre to be fobbed off with a check but as a person who has never been loved as Isabel herself feels people must be loved. If she really loved Margaret, who has hurt many people (including Father Mulcahy) and spread scandal, she would heed the advice of Jesus: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matt. 18:15). In short, if Isabel really loved Margaret, she would relate to her, and this she never does. Margaret Casey is an important “type” for Gordon, who will create a similar character in Laura Post in Men and Angels. Like Isabel, Anne Foster will encounter the unlovable; her actions will be somewhat different, but they too will be circumscribed by the limitations inherent in a response that cannot, or will not, transcend the human level.

Of course, Gordon's own experiences lie behind the struggle with love in all her work, behind the unconventional communities of the first two novels and behind the obsessive motherhood of the third. These experiences include her Catholic education in the fifties, when she would have learned by rote most of the Church's doctrines, as summarized in the Baltimore Catechism. My guess is that Mary Gordon, consciously or not, was profoundly influenced by the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. In The Company of Women, Robert Cavendish praises Felicitas's abilities as a writer and declares: “‘I think the three women in this room could be at the vanguard of the new movement. Felicitas the head, Sally the hands and Iris the heart.’ The mystical body of Christ, Felicitas thought, but said nothing.”

According to the Catechism, “the Catholic Church is called the Mystical Body of Christ because its members are united by supernatural bonds with one another and with Christ, their Head, thus resembling the members and head of the living human body.” Since Catholics were also taught that every human being, either directly or by extension, belonged to the Church, the Mystical Body is, in fact, the human race with Christ as its head. The Church derives the notion of Mystical Body from Scripture: in John's gospel, Jesus says that “I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (15:5). Writing to the Ephesians, St. Paul says that the Father has made Jesus “head over all things to the church, which is his body” (1:22-3). In the chapter of I Corinthians that immediately precedes the famous disquisition on love that Gordon refers to in Final Payments and uses in the title Men and Angels, Paul writes most eloquently on this concept: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body. … And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (12:12-13; 26-27).

Every human being, then, is a member of the same family; blood ties matter far less than the unity all people share in Christ. The doctrine of the Mystical Body lies at the heart of Catholic belief; its concept of a community that makes no distinctions based on such human accidents as race or sex is an ideal the church has always sought to realize. Mary Gordon has said, “I guess what I see as valuable in the Church is a very high ethic of love which exists in the context of the whole of European civilization.”

Schooled in this approach to life, Gordon explores the boundaries of love, hopelessly limited on the merely human level but transformed when viewed in relationship to the transcendent. Very revealing are her selections for a 1985 symposium on “The Good Books: Writer's Choices”:

Simone Weil, Waiting for God, George Herbert—a 17th-century poet—and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. In Herbert, it is the perfection and the understatement of the language that allows for a simple encounter with the divine; the understatement allows for tremendous expansiveness. Simone Weil writes of a vision of God as love, and the relationship of the love of God to human life. It is rigorous, absolute, and passionate. In all three works, it is the link between spirituality and passion, as well as the absoluteness of vision. Much of my work deals with the limitation of human love; the vision of the absolute is the ideal that we as humans are striving against. If one talks about a spiritual quest, it is about this pursuit of absolute love.

Gordon's choice of preposition in the penultimate sentence says a great deal. “We … humans strive against \emphasis mine],” not toward, the vision of the absolute, the ideal explored by Weil, Herbert and Donne. So far, her fiction has avoided the “spiritual quest,” which would make “absolute love” its goal, and has focused instead on “the limitation of human love.”

Therefore, her protagonists fail to acknowledge the divine dimension in human love; like the narrator in Francis Thompson's “The Hound of Heaven,” they flee from the demands of absolute love, which is God, and try desperately to find substitutes for transcendence. In the first two novels, Isabel and Felicitas reject the Church at least partly because they do not really understand the substance of Christianity that lies beneath the accidents of discipline and ritual. Isabel seeks in vain for shelter in sex or in masochism. Felicitas seeks in vain for shelter in sex or in motherhood.

In her review of Men and Angels, Margaret Drabble notes that “this is a deliberately domestic, at times claustrophobic novel,” one, indeed, in which very little happens on the surface. The Fosters plan to spend a year in France, where Michael will teach while a French colleague replaces him at Selby College in Massachusetts. But Anne decides to stay in Selby with the two children because an old friend, the art dealer Ben Hardy, offers her an opportunity to write the catalogue for an exhibition of paintings by Caroline Watson, an American artist who died in 1938. “Her misfortune was to be a merely first-rate painter in an age of geniuses.”

From the start, then, Gordon makes this “ordinary” family extraordinary by physically separating the parents; the Foster family is seriously weakened. Anne's decision to stay home precipitates the action, since she needs a live-in baby-sitter so that she can work. She reluctantly hires Laura Post, having conceived an instant dislike for this twenty-one-year-old who reads only the Bible. Laura is convinced that she is God's specially chosen creature (compare the status of Isabel and Felicitas!), destined to rescue Anne and her children from their pagan ways, their attachment to the flesh. Ultimately, she decides that she can rescue Anne only by taking her own life. Her suicide and its aftermath comprise the final movement of the novel.

In the earlier novels, the protagonist incorporates two extremes of behavior. Here, the extremes are split into two characters, who are meant to reflect one another; the masochist and the mother confront each other as distinct individuals. Early in the novel, Gordon goes to some trouble to suggest that Laura and Anne physically resemble each other. Thus, Anne has white skin and blue eyes, reddish hair, “a small bosom and no waist,” and “comical size-eleven feet.” Laura has “the light blue watery eyes of many redheads, which her thick glasses clouded and enlarged. There was something opulent about her skin: it was white, translucent.” If Anne has big feet, Laura has “large, protruding ears.” Later, Anne notes that Laura is wearing the same perfume and eye shadow Anne herself uses.

It would seem that no two people could be less alike than Laura and Anne, but this physical resemblance haunts the novel and forces the reader to consider that the all-too apparent obsessions of Laura are somehow related to the obsessive motherhood of Anne. Indeed, they share more than physical resemblance and makeup. With Michael they share the experience of mothers who failed them in one way or another. Lucy Foster, abandoned by her husband when Michael was four, could not handle domestic life: “Anne often wondered how Michael had physically survived his early childhood.” By the age of eight, he did all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning. But he never had cause to doubt his mother's love for him, despite her neglect of the house. Anne's mother not only disliked home life and failed during the simplest domestic crises; she never cared for Anne as Anne's father does; the mother has always feared that Anne's success would overshadow her sister, who even in adulthood resents Anne. Both Michael and Anne “had been, as children, mothers, both involved in the conspiracy at the center of the lives of children of deficient parents.”

Anne's only real failure in life occurs in 1974, when she loses her job at Boston's Gardner Museum: “She had felt shame then, as she had never in her life felt it before. … She knew, for the first time then, that failure made you feel like a criminal.” Unfortunately, Laura has never known success, and her lunacy derives directly from her brutal childhood. In The Company of Women, Felicitas recalls that, for some months, she was unable to treat Linda as her child: “I neglected Linda; I neglected her shamefully, but she is all right. I have read that a mother's rejection can cause autism and schizophrenia.”

A mother at seventeen, Mrs. Post rejects Laura because Laura's birth represents the end of her freedom. (Interestingly, Anne and Mrs. Post are the same age: Anne could also have a twenty-one-year-old daughter; instead, her older child is only nine.) The damage is compounded by the passivity of Laura's father, who makes no effort to intervene when the mother mistreats Laura and favors their younger daughter. Mrs. Post withholds love from Laura and also destroys Laura's innocence, not only by tossing bloody menstrual napkins anywhere but by committing adultery in the middle of the afternoon.

The Spirit first comes to Laura after a particularly vicious attack by Mrs. Post; her mother's rejection causes her to “find the Lord.” From the start Laura's “Christianity” scorns and fears human love; so badly hurt by her mother, she avoids risking love and thus cripples her Christianity. Rejecting the possibility of human love, Laura leaves home and takes up with a sect of religious fanatics whose leader insists that the Lord desires the joining of his body and Laura's “flesh to flesh.” Later, she sleeps with Anne's philandering friend Adrian, whom earlier she had fantasized marrying, because she wants to keep him from Anne. “Laura did not understand marriage; the idea of it disgusted her: choosing a partner for the urges of the flesh, in filth creating children to be hurt and caused to suffer.”

Laura abhors sex and fears human attachments. When she fantasizes about marrying Adrian in Anne's house and living with him nearby, she catches herself: “They would love her but she would not love back as much. Because she still would have the Spirit. They would have to stay but she might leave at any time because she knew that attachments meant nothing. … She would have to be careful. Careful that she did not start to need, careful to remember that it was all nothing.” Ironically, Laura eventually dreams of a kind of celibate marriage with Anne; when Anne fires her for neglecting the children, she takes her life in order to win Anne's love, to win love that she has never known.

Presenting Laura with Fear and Trembling and Waiting for God as Christmas presents, Michael “tried to tell her about them. But she didn't care. Books would lead no one to the Spirit. In the Scripture she found all she needed.” Laura's tragedy is that she cannot find a human love to validate her love of God. She is completely isolated; she excommunicates herself from all human and religious community. Laura Post is the unloved child who never really understands the “whole point of the Gospels. She read them over and over, and she never got the point. … That she was greatly beloved.” Unfortunately, “the love of God means nothing to a heart that is starved of human love.” The deranged Laura kills herself to save Anne Foster; ironically, her suicide does have a lasting effect; it destroys forever Anne's illusion that she can shelter her children from life and its dangers simply by the force of her motherly will.

Desiring to save her children from life, Anne exposes them to it sooner than she ever was exposed herself—indeed, she doesn't learn how awful it can be until confronted by Laura's suicide. Isabel in Final Payments decides that life is “monstrous: what you had you were always in danger of losing. The greatest love meant only the greatest danger. That was life; life was monstrous.” Anne recognizes this truth in the abstract, but it takes Laura to incarnate it for her, when she is thirty-eight years old. Gordon demonstrates Anne's obsessive love for her children in as much detail as she documents Laura's lunacy.

Anne's mother-love demonstrates the truth of a remark addressed to her at one point in the novel: “You're a great believer in the power of blood. A real primitive you are, aren't you?” Early in the story, Gordon writes: “No one would ever know the passion she felt for her children. It was savage, lively, volatile. It would smash, in one minute, the image people had of her of someone who lived life serenely, steering always the same sure, slow course. As it was, they would never know, she was rocked back and forth, she was lifted up and down by waves of passion: of fear, of longing, of delight.”

At the crisis of the story, when Laura inadvertently allows the children to walk on an icy pond probably not firm enough to hold them, Anne brings the children to safety and then turns to Laura. “The desire to put her hands around Laura's throat, to take one of the large rocks on the shore and smash her skull, to break the ice and hold her head under the water till she felt her life give out was as strong as any passion Anne had ever known.” The gravity of the situation justifies Anne's anger. But it is also clear that Anne lives far from the extended families of the earlier novels and is unfamiliar with the concept of the Mystical Body, with its promise that blood is not all-important, that there are relationships that transcend the physical.

Long before this crisis, Gordon makes clear that religious belief is foreign to the Fosters; Anne's mother admits that her daughters “were both brought up quite irreligiously. I went to convent school for twelve years and had all I could take. Perhaps that was rash.” Consequently, “Anne had never understood the religious life. She could be moved by it when it led to some large public generosity. … But there was another side to it she couldn't comprehend. People led religious lives in the way that people wrote poetry, heard music.” As for the children, “Peter and Sarah hadn't been told anything about the devil.”

Yet someone Anne greatly respects and admires, Caroline Watson's daughter-in-law Jane, has a religious life and articulates some of the most important insights in the novel. It is Jane who realizes that Laura missed the “whole point of the Gospels” and who identifies Anne as “a great believer in the power of blood.” Out of a sense of guilt over the death of her husband, Stephen, Caroline's illegitimate son, Jane “turned to faith because it showed the possibility of forgiveness for the unforgivable.”

Caroline's inability to love Stephen, her own flesh and blood, angers Anne, and Caroline's mistreatment of her son threatens Anne's ability to write about her objectively. “Whenever Anne thought of Caroline's treatment of Stephen she came upon a barrier between them that was as profound as one of language. … She couldn't imagine Peter or Sarah marrying anyone she would prefer to them, as Caroline had preferred Jane to Stephen.” Stephen's death at the age of twenty-eight was the result.

When Michael returns from France for Christmas, the Fosters visit Jane Watson. Michael notes that she has many of Simone Weil's books. Ben comments:

“Michael, be a dear boy and don't go on about Mademoiselle Weil. It's bound to make Jane and me come to blows. All that hatred of the flesh. …”

“It was Simone Weil who brought me to a religious life. Well, she and George Herbert.”

“How so?” asked Michael.

Anne was embarrassed. She thought that religious people shouldn't talk about such things in public. … But Michael, she knew, had no such qualms. To him a religious disposition was only one more example of odd human traits quite randomly bestowed, like buckteeth or perfect pitch. Anne felt it was something powerful and incomprehensible. It made people behave extraordinarily; it made them monsters of persecution, angels of self-sacrifice.

From her curious vantage point, Laura recognizes the emptiness of the lives around her. The reader is forced to wonder how long Anne and her family can survive in the culture of secular materialism that surrounds them. It is no accident, surely, that Laura's choice of suicide—slitting her wrists and bleeding to death in a bathtub that overflows down to the basement—destroys much of the fabric of the Foster home; possessions will not provide shelter, any more than mother-love can.

Laura's suicide is the desperate act of a deranged person. Yet it may force Anne to move beyond “blood” and mother-love to some concept of love that can embrace even the unlovable. Like Isabel with the old people in Final Payments, she practices “charity” on Laura, buying her beautiful clothing and fussing to celebrate her birthday. Unable to like Laura, Anne fails to love her, fails to provide her even a foster home. Loving Laura would mean taking some responsibility for her, providing her with real help, probably with psychiatric care.

Laura's death brings her the recognition she was denied in life: Anne could not love her, but she pledges to mourn for her. Weeping in Michael's arms, Anne reflects on the love that features so prominently in Gordon's work:

People were so weak, and life would raise its whip and bring it down again and again on the bare tender flesh of the most vulnerable. Love was what they needed, and most often it was not there. It was abundant, love, but it could not be called. It was won by chance; it was a monstrous game of luck. Fate was too honorable a name for it. … \Laura] was starved, and she had died of it. And Anne let her husband's love feed her. Let the shade of its wing shelter her, cover her over. But no wing had ever covered Laura. The harsh light had exhausted her until she could only go mad. And then the whip had fallen. And Anne knew that she had helped the whip to descend.

In partially recognizing love's power, Anne may come to understand the love that transcends human love, that consoles even in cases like Laura's. At Laura's funeral service, for the first time in their lives, Peter and Sarah hear religious language as the priest recites several Psalms, including Psalm 121: “The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.” The Fosters may come to recognize that familial love is not enough. But Gordon's focus, always, is on “the limitation of human love,” and that limitation is nowhere more brilliantly presented than in Men and Angels.

Mary Gordon uses various strategies to explore how people live and relate to each other in the late twentieth century. In Final Payments and The Company of Women, she studies the Catholic subculture in disarray as certainties fade; shelter is offered by extended families, earthly echoes of the Mystical Body. But these families are flawed, even that of Father Cyprian, whose “company of women” is insular and isolated. There is no sense here of the universal community predicated by St. Paul or the Canon of the Mass. The third novel, Men and Angels, shifts the focus to an “average” American family. But the shelter offered here, in an a-religious environment, is so fragile that it cannot include the troubled Laura.

“Nobody wants to write about yuppies,” Gordon herself has remarked. “It's much more interesting to write about a closed, slightly secret, marginal group.” This preference explains the first two novels, some of the short stories, and the work in progress, a treatment of the Irish immigrant experience. Yet Men and Angels is her “yuppy novel.” As such it dramatizes forcefully the dilemma of our culture, which has left God and Church behind but not yet found a satisfactory substitute—the best it can offer is a Foster family.

Madison Smartt Bell (review date 15 October 1989)

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SOURCE: “Terrible, the Way It Was in Families,” in New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1989, p. 9.

[In the following review, Bell offers positive assessment of The Other Side.]

Mary Gordon's earlier work has demonstrated her expertise in portraying the politics of family life, with its manifold misunderstandings and its complex struggles for power and love. In her fourth novel, she applies this ability to a much larger and more intricate situation than ever before, attempting to account for five generations of the MacNamara family within the space of 24 hours. On the day in question, the elderly Vincent MacNamara is expected to return from a sanitarium, where he has spent several months recuperating from a broken hip, to the house in Queens where his wife, Ellen, lies dying after a series of small strokes. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have gathered for his homecoming, thus supplying the book with some 20 major characters. It is a tribute to Ms. Gordon's artistry that she brings this dauntingly large cast so quickly and surely to life.

Her approach is to cut a cross section through the trunk of these interrelated lives to reveal how they appear at this particular moment to which their histories have brought them—and to expose the fibers that bind them together. Naturally, Vincent and Ellen, the heads of the house, are found at the center. “Terrible, the way it was in families,” thinks Vincent. “He'd never understood it. Why they weren't what they were meant to be, what they could almost be so easily.”

In the MacNamara family, love tends to skip generations. Ellen is uninterested in her daughters, Magdalene and Theresa, caring only for her son, John, who is killed in World War II. Afterward, she seizes his accidentally conceived son, Dan, away from his hapless mother and raises him as her own, while the remainder of her maternal affection goes to Magdalene's daughter, Cam, who has been effectively orphaned by her father's death and her mother's alcoholism. Ellen herself is the survivor of a wretched childhood in Ireland, which she served as the keeper of her insane mother, whom her father abandoned. Vincent's Irish family seems only a little kindlier, and he also arrives in America in flight. With vignettes of memory, the two reconstruct a classic immigrants' tale: lives as laborers, as union organizers, the ascent to the middle class.

The stories of all the MacNamara descendants are also given in marvelously economical capsules. Theresa's three children, John, Marilyn and Sheilah, are all in one way or another crippled by their mother's contempt, which seems to have been inspired by Ellen's indifference to her. That sort of repeating pattern in family history is itself a recurring feature of Ms. Gordon's work. Magdalene's daughter, Cam, and John's son, Dan, who were loved as children, break out of the pattern to some degree, but although they are successful in their partnership as divorce lawyers, they both lead ragged personal lives. Cam is stuck in the shell of a failed and childless marriage, and she cannot solve her perpetual quarrel with her mother, a drunken hypochondriac who hasn't left her room in years. The messily divorced Dan is tormented by guilt over what his departure has done to his own children. Both he and Cam find only limited comfort with their respective lovers, since both are still members of a Roman Catholic culture where adultery is regarded with great seriousness. “The stories told by the women in her family,” Cam thinks, “were always in the service of this: this judgment, without whose proximity they could not, any of them, think of pleasure.”

There's plot enough in The Other Side for several novels, but the main purpose of all the action is to illuminate individual character: what it is and how it comes to be. Ms. Gordon has set out to discover how each self is formed in relation to other selves, to learn to what extent identity is chosen and to what extent it is imposed. The agoraphobic Magdalene supplies a metaphor for this repeating uncertainty in the lives of all the characters: “She sees herself on the street. There is no self there, no shape, nothing to keep her from spilling over into air, into life, into anybody's life. Outside this room she can fly off, she will, there will be no more her, nothing will press down on her to create a shape.”

As Magdalene is shaped by the walls of her room, so are the other characters by other people, by circumstantial relationships that mold for almost every one of them an identity that becomes hardened past any possibility of change. Of all the MacNamaras, only Vincent seems capable of imagining himself as something other than what he is; this capacity serves as a healing force in his marriage when he returns to Ireland to repair some of the damage done by Ellen's vengefully motivated departure many years earlier. But all the others (down to Dan's teen-age daughters Darci and Staci) suffer that hardening of personality that may be an inheritance from Ellen, who is so powerfully intransigent as to break herself with her own strength. In her deathbed reverie, “she wants a stone now for a body, smooth, a weapon, closed. Now her body keeps nothing back.” All the MacNamaras experience themselves as formed, inexorably: such is the tragedy of this family's life.

The spectacle of so many strong and good people so seriously failing one another and themselves would logically become, in a religious context, an image of the fallen world. Mary Gordon is consummately skilled at rendering nuances of religious devotion, which she has handled very differently in her very different books: The Company of Women, for example, treats religious mysticism respectfully and lovingly, while Men and Angels shows an extreme case of it as a psychopathological catastrophe. In this new novel, Catholicism appears more in its influence on ordinary life than in its mystery. The big religious questions are asked, but not dwelt upon. At one point, Vincent tentatively characterizes God as “some person whom your tears will interest,” then asks himself, “And have you made Him up?” The MacNamaras' predicament is presented existentially, and Deus (ex machina or otherwise) does not actually appear.

The Other Side is epic in scope but not in length, and in other hands it might have ended as a snarl of unfinished business. But Mary Gordon's painstakingly cultivated gift for zeroing in on the important emotions with unsentimental precision, and her talent for summing up character efficiently and accurately, make this the best of her several fine books. Although some threads of the plot go dangling, the strands turn out to matter much less than the web. Thus Vincent's questions of faith are answered, somewhat backhandedly, by Dan, who “realizes the nature of his faith. He believes in human frailty. He sees the wholeness of all life, the intricate connecting tissue. It is this, this terrible endeavor, this impossible endeavor. Simply to live a life.”

“Each unhappy family,” as Tolstoy put it, “is unhappy in its own way,” and under the aspect of eternity the pursuit of happiness may be less important than the pursuer takes it to be. The idea that suffering is the catalyst that gives each soul its essential nature remains at least consistent with the Christian heritage of which Mary Gordon continues to partake. Like Tolstoy, she is a profoundly religious novelist who has obligated herself to understand the lives she invents in strictly human terms.

Pearl K. Bell (review date 18 December 1989)

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SOURCE: “Last Exit to Queens,” in The New Republic, December 18, 1989, pp. 39-41.

[In the following essay, Bell offers an overview of Gordon's literary career and tempered evaluation of The Other Side.]

Young writers do not as a rule take commanding possession of a literary world, religious or social, with a first novel. Their fictional property rights, so to speak, need to be confirmed in a continuing body of work. But when Mary Gordon published her first novel, Final Payments, at the age of 29, it was acclaimed not only for the dazzling intensity of her prose, but for the indisputable authority of her portrayal of the Irish-Catholic working class in Queens, that least urban and most provincial of the New York City boroughs. With that single novel she established her dominion as a writer in the time and the place she knew best.

There have been relatively few Catholic writers in the United States. The Protestant culture found its literary landscape in the small towns and rural regions of America, while Jewish writers in the last 40 years have dominated the urban scene. Most of the novelists born into Catholic families, like John O'Hara and F. Scott Fitzgerald, had no interest in writing about their religion. Except for J. F. Powers, who has portrayed the everyday life of parish priests in the Midwest with wry sympathy, no significant name comes to mind. (There are popular novelists like James Carroll and Andrew Greeley, but their work is entertainment, not art. Does anyone read James T. Farrell anymore?)

Nor are there many women who write as Catholics. In the South, Flannery O'Connor, a devout believer, envisioned the timeless mysteries of God and the Devil in grotesque and violent forms. But in Mary McCarthy's brittle novels about urban intellectuals, there's scarcely a hint of religion of any persuasion, and the very title of her autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood indicated that her ties to the Church were among the “childish things” she put away, not exactly in the spirit of St. Paul, when she grew up.

In her first two books, Gordon dealt with the conflicts that all young people experience in coming of age, though her particular terrain was Irish Catholic Queens. Final Payments and The Company of Women were abundantly rich in detail about Catholic ritual, custom, and belief, the kind of intimate knowledge only a cradle Catholic can possess. Yet each novel was a kind of bildungsroman. Each described a mettlesome young woman who slowly and painfully realizes that only by rejecting the repressive interdictions of the Church can she be free to enjoy “the rewards of a reasonable life.”

In Final Payments, Isabel Moore has sacrificed a precious decade of youth to the care of an invalid father, a man whose faith is so unyielding and austere that he believes “the refusal of anyone in the 20th century to become part of the Catholic Church was not pitiable; it was malicious and willful.” Even after she is released from filial bondage by her father's death, Isabel does not question her certainty that “what I came from was far more compelling than what I was.” After a brief fling with a married man, she scuttles back to her cocoon of piety, and the specious purity of self-abnegation, to atone for her transgression. We are told that in time Isabel finds the courage to liberate herself, sexually and otherwise; but exactly how and why she managed this about-face remains unclear.

Of course such dramatically abrupt changes of heart and mind are a stock feature of coming-of-age novels, and Gordon did not resist their tidy appeal. What redeemed Final Payments from banality and predictability, however, was its descriptive eloquence and its metaphoric freshness. Though it seemed obvious that Gordon conceived her heroine's pursuit of “ordinary human happiness” in terms of worldly feminism, she emphatically declared in an interview that “I have a real religious life in a framework which I think of as Catholic.”

Is it possible to be both a devout Catholic and a radical feminist? To someone who is neither it sounds, I confess, like an oxymoron. Feminists within the Church want to lift the ban on the ordination of women because they feel they deserve a share of hierarchical power. Yet their commitment to the Roman faith remains intact. They would not assent for a moment to the inimical judgment of divinity expressed by Felicitas, the young rebel in The Company of Women, who smugly announces at the end of the book that she has hardened her heart against God: “I will not accept the blandishments of the religious life; I will not look to God for comfort, or for succor, or for sweetness. God will have to meet me on the high ground of reason, and there he's a poor contender.” How Flannery O'Connor would have shuddered at this self-righteous blasphemy.

There is ambivalence, there is confusion, at the heart of this second novel, and Gordon seemed unable, or unwilling, to deal with it. The conservative priest Father Cyprian has pinned his highest hopes on the child Felicitas. If she abides by his counsel, she will attain the spiritual purity that in his view is increasingly defiled in the modern world. But she cruelly rejects his dream, enrolls at Columbia rather than a Catholic college, has an affair with a dopey radical professor (heavy-handedly caricatured); becomes pregnant, and bears an illegitimate child. Cyprian is crushed by her rebellion. Still, even though Gordon obviously sees him as a representative of the old, intransigent, pre-Vatican II order of the Church, he is the most compelling and complex character in the novel. In the end, the anguished old priest has more profound moral weight, is more credibly human, than the arrogantly self-satisfied heroine.

Perhaps it was Gordon's inability to resolve the emotional tug-of-war between sanctity and emancipation that accounts for the absence of Catholicism from her third novel, Men and Angels, in which religion takes the menacing form of non-denominational lunacy. Anne Foster, a supposedly intelligent and sensitive woman, much given to tiresome rumination about the precariousness of human existence, has entrusted her children to a live-in baby sitter who's more than a little peculiar. We know it will all end horribly because Gordon spins out the demented girl's lurid fantasies about the Spirit of Vengeance and the Chosen of the Lord at tedious length, but exactly what this character is supposed to illustrate is hard to grasp.

If Gordon is trying to say that any form of religious fanaticism is a kind of madness, she doesn't convey this judgment persuasively. And if she means the novel to be a celebration of motherhood, Anne is too deplorably lacking in the common sense a mother must have to protect her children from danger. Gordon couldn't make up her mind, it seems, about any of the questions she raised in Men and Angels, and the result was a weak and muddled book lacking all conviction.

Gordon's new novel, The Other Side (as the Irish of Ireland called the beckoning land across the sea), is her most ambitious work so far, and it brings her back to where she started, to the Irish Catholics of Queens. Instead of a bravely independent young woman straining against the repressive leash of the Church, Gordon has expanded her sights to encompass five generations of a large family, each unhappy in its own fashion.

Shuttling restlessly between past and present, between the bogs of Ireland and the streets of New York, the story is framed by the events of one day in the summer of 1985, when the entire clan has gathered in Queens to await the homecoming of the patriarch, 88-year-old Vincent MacNamara. For months he has been recuperating in a nursing home from a broken hip. In the arresting episode that begins the family saga, we learn how he was injured: his 90-year-old wife, Ellen, battered by years of strokes, knocked him down in a sudden access of wild rage, and wandered out of the house in her nightgown. In the ensuing months she has become almost completely insensible, but she is fitfully tormented by memories of the past that whirl through her ruined head like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

Indeed, anger has been Ellen's life-blood since childhood, the agitated sinews of her being, and even on her death-bed she can still cry out curses that terrify the family. In a bravura passage, Gordon summons up the soul of this difficult woman with majestic dread:

Within the nearly visible skull, the brain, disintegrating fast, reaches back past houses, curtains, out to ships and over oceans, down to the sea's bottom, back, down, to the bog's soaked floor, to mud, then to the oozing beds of ancient ill will, prehistoric rage, vengeance, punishment in blood.

Neither time nor her husband's long-suffering devotion has pacified Ellen MacNamara, who has been raging against the ways of God and man through most of her 90 years. As a girl in Ireland she despised the priests, and hated her father for transforming her beautiful mother into a gibbering imbecile. Now, as the old woman tosses and raves in her bed, the bitter harvest of her unassuageable fury is reaped by her descendants. One daughter is a hard-hearted martinet armored in righteous Catholic piety, and the other has become a whining drunk wallowing in self-pity. Both of them blame everything that has gone wrong in their lives on the mother who could not love them.

Only two of the grandchildren, Camille and Dan, have known a gentler side of Ellen, and in the younger generation only they have felt an enduring affection for her. But it has not enabled them to straighten out their lives any more successfully than the others. Each of the grandchildren has been maimed in some way by thwarted hopes. They feel no pleasure in each other's company, and the air of the old house in Queens is soured by animosity and resentment.

We wait for the tension to break, for a storm to erupt. It does not happen. The novel's wavelike oscillation back and forth in time and space prevents the story from gathering the momentum it badly needs. The disjointed structure that Gordon has imposed on the MacNamara family saga, crosscutting nervously from one cousin's life story to another, makes it a considerable effort to keep the different characters firmly in mind.

It has been said that every modern American writer eventually tries a Hollywood novel and an immigrant novel. Not only Jewish writers, though they have perhaps been the most prolific, have been drawn to it time and again: the immigrant experience has been one of the great American subjects, indeed the unending American subject. Growing up in Nebraska, Willa Cather so fully absorbed the suffering and the triumphs of the Bohemian and Scandinavian pioneers flowing onto the prairie that she wrote some of her finest novels (My Antonia, The Song of the Lark) about those hardy European settlers, though she was not one of them.

As far as I know, the life of the immigrants from Ireland has been much less fully explored in American fiction, and it is this stream in the westward migration from Europe that has provided Gordon with the strongest sections of her new novel. She evokes with considerable power the harrowing life that Irish immigrants endured in New York before the First World War.

Just off the boat, not yet 20 years old, Vincent took the first job that came along, digging the I.R.T. subway tunnel in the bowels of the city. For the country boy from Cork, those were “terrible days at first, he couldn't get used to working underground. The heat, the stink. Exhaustion in the bones and worse; filth you could never get away from … the beast's work that required no mind: digging, nothing to understand.” Ellen, just as young and green, thought herself lucky to find a job as maid to a woman she despised, then became a seamstress in a sweatshop, hunched over fancy gowns for endless hours, and sleeping in a dark basement room. We can begin to recognize the deep, gnarled roots of her irrepressible rage against fate.

Compared with the poverty and brutalizing labor that engulfed Ellen and Vincent at the start of their life in the new world, how petty and self-indulgent are the grievances and discontents of the younger generation. The pity of it is that Gordon hasn't done more with the immigrant past. Though the eldest MacNamaras are the most completely realized characters in the book, their early years in America are not rendered with the fullness and the depth they deserve. Gordon shifts away too abruptly from the past, which is the riveting heart of her story, to the present, which is far less interesting.

It may very well be that as a novelist Gordon has gone as far as she can with the Irish, and with the Catholic Church. Her feelings about Irishness and Ireland remain fixed in the tension between her two eldest protagonists: Ellen could feel only “anger at the Irish countryside, the harsh soil and the scrub growth, the gorse she hated,” while Vincent never lost his loving memory of the rolling green land, his delight in “the tilled field … the elm or the potato, tender when in leaf.” And, as we have seen, the Catholic world of present-day Queens has become exhausted as well.

In Gordon's literary imagination, Catholicism has lost the vital urgency it had in her earlier work. For most of the present-day generations in The Other Side, the Church has no significance, not even as something they long to escape from. In the lives of the younger MacNamaras, as in the lives of the young in other ethnic worlds, the defining influence of religion and the European past has become meaningless, and they are of a piece with the rest of their age. Now that her world no longer holds together, where will this remarkable writer turn next?

John B. Breslin (review date 9 February 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Blight in Their Baggage,” in Commonweal, February 9, 1990, pp. 87-8.

[In the following review, Breslin offers tempered evaluation of The Other Side.]

Mary Gordon's latest novel is also her most ambitious both in length and, more importantly, in scope. That's the good news about the novel, and it is indeed good. The bad news is that the execution isn't quite as good as the idea.

The Other Side covers one day in the life of the McNamara family, four generations of New York Irish-Americans who have most of the vices and some of the virtues of their kind. But that day extends backward over eight decades, and the novel's focus moves from the new world to the old and back.

In a Queens bedroom, the ninety-year-old matriarch, Ellen, lies angrily dying while a hundred miles east in a warmly lit nursing home her husband Vincent reluctantly waits to be brought back to her. In the meantime, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gather in Queens to await the reunion and live out the grudges, resentments, and affections that have grown up across the generations.

But the story of Ellen and Vincent has its roots in Ireland, the most obvious but not the only sense of the novel's evocative title. The dark strain in the McNamara family romance flows in an appropriately Freudian way from a sibling rivalry that sours Vincent's growing up and from a maternal breakdown that destroys Ellen's idyllic childhood and breeds an undying hatred of her ambitious father for abandoning his wife. The long passage of retrospect that limn their troubled departures from home reveal Gordon at her narrative and psychological best. I found that judgment confirmed when, at a reading I attended, she chose to read exclusively from these sections. Here's a sample taken from Ellen's memories of her father's infidelity:

“But it was her job to hate her father. To punish him for leaving them alone in the stone house with only two windows, for allowing Marin Monahan in the house that had been once her mother's. To soil it with her filth. He'd made the mother darken, coarsen, till she looked out at the brown grasses from the moment of her awakening until dark, her only pleasure food, eaten fearfully, and greedily, like an animal. Her mother, once beautiful, now ruined, was her father's work.”

And this from Vincent's recollection of his older brother's vicious killing of a pet lamb in a scene redolent of the Book of Genesis:

“While Vincent looked down at the animal's body, he knew everything. The first thing he took in with calm; it was simple: the animal was dead. The second made him frightened: he could see the remnants of life still within the animal. What happened had just happened. The third thing he knew made fear and anger grow inside his brain, like trees that grow from the same root beside each other, harmful and competitive, yet bound. His brother had done this to harm him. It was Vincent's throat, not the poor animal's, he would have liked to cut.”

After such wounding, what healing? Surprisingly, for Ellen and Vincent, their marriage, tumultuous as its six decades prove to be, offers each the confidence and love they have lacked. Indeed, it is the only successful marriage in the whole novel. The blight they carried with them from the other side infects in one form or another all three of their children and most of the next two generations. It is not a happy family that gathers around Ellen to await Vincent's fulfillment of a vow she had extracted from him early in their marriage that he would never abandon her to an institution. Of all their descendants unto the third generation only Cam and Dan are presented as attractive individuals. Having alienated their daughters and lost their son in World War II, Ellen and Vincent attempt to recoup their losses through these two grandchildren whom they raise as their own. Cousins who become siblings, Cam and Dan inherit both Ellen's fierce determination to change the world and Vincent's calmer acceptance of life's anomalies. They also come to be partners in a local law firm specializing in divorce, a condition each knows intimately. Together they stand against their cousins and their aunts, intent on protecting Ellen and Vincent from their indifference and resentment.

What are we to make of this world of the McNamaras that Mary Gordon has created? Surely, it is an interesting one, especially in the persons of its matriarch and patriarch. The tangle of their love, as expressed in their own ruminations and in the deeply biased reflections of their progeny, confirms Tolstoy's observation about the uniqueness of unhappy families. When Vincent finally does return on the last page of the novel, he confirms what the story has already made abundantly clear:

“He walks through the living room, waving his hand at people, like a politician. He waves at his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. He has no time for them now.

“He is on his way to his wife.”

In the end, Vincent and Ellen are alone together, more passionate and committed than any of their clan. All the rest, even Cam and Dan, fade into insignificance in the final ambiguous flaring of their lifelong love that closes the book:

“She hears his step in the room and opens up her eyes.”

“He believes that she can see him, but he's not quite sure.”

Vincent and Ellen dominate not only their family but Mary Gordon's novel as well, and both to questionable effect. Ellen's indifference toward her daughters is richly repaid by their hostility, just as her devotion to her son John is recompensed in the way of Irish fatalism with his death in battle. In setting out to do Tolstoy in Queens, Mary Gordon has taken as many risks as her heroine. If the list of family members and their interrelationships that prefaces the novel is a form of homage to her Russian models, it also should forewarn readers that exposition will be in short supply. The narrative shuttles from consciousness to consciousness with names being dropped in an entirely familial way, requiring many flips back to the list of dramatis personae. More seriously, the large cast dissipates both the narrative flow and the dramatic tension of the novel. Too many of the clan are more caricatures than characters, each with a special grudge or a special tic, like daughter Theresa's deadly combination of punishing remarks and charismatic prayers or grandson John's general ineffectualness. The protracted accounts of their unhappiness become tedious after a while, and the reader longs for the sharper passions of Ellen and Vincent which give the novel the genuine power it has.

In spite of these disappointments, I for one look forward eagerly (not anxiously) to Mary Gordon's next novel which I trust will be as daring in its way as The Other Side.

John M. Neary (essay date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: “Mary Gordon's Final Payments: A Romance of the One True Language,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 94-110.

[In the following essay, Neary examines the problem of linguistic authority, religious truth, and metaphysical uncertainty in Final Payments. According to Neary, Gordon reacts to “the loss of certainty” and its attendant disillusionment through humor and shifted focus on the aesthetic qualities of language.]

“I was looking for miracle, mystery, and authority,” Mary Gordon says in a 1978 issue of Harper's, consciously echoing Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor; “I was interested in style, in spirituality.” Gordon is describing a visit to the Long Island headquarters of the Society of St. Pius X, a group of radically conservative followers of French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. But she could well be discussing the evolution of her first novel, Final Payments: this stylish, spiritual depiction of the American Catholic experience was published just a few months prior to the appearance of the Harper's article.

In the article, Gordon explains that the existence of the Lefebvrists represents for her the possible persistence of the Church of her childhood, a world of certainties—a world in which words and other signs represent, absolutely, the reality signified. And the fact that the society is located on Long Island just intensifies the nostalgia; Gordon feels on the verge of being swallowed up by the past:

I grew up on Long Island among radically conservative Catholics, and there is a particular aptness for me in the coincidence of a movement that embodies what I have left and lost being placed in the physical world of my childhood.

… My friends are worried. They kiss me on the forehead before I leave, as if they are afraid they will not see me again, as if they are seeing me off on a voyage of indeterminate length and destination in a vessel whose seaworthiness they seriously doubt.

That the society turns out to lack the miracle, mystery, and authority sought by Gordon may not be terribly surprising to readers of the article (we trust a smart contemporary novelist, a member of a breed who subsist on ambiguities and uncertainties, not to be entrapped by a band of absolutists). Gordon herself, however, after professing that she felt “relief” when she escaped from the society, says that “there is loss, as well, or more properly disappointment.” And Final Payments is in fact about very similar loss and disappointment. The protagonist's central crisis is a realization that the human world and its symbols (particularly its linguistic ones) can no longer mediate an absolute, transcendent vision, a real presence of God, of parent, of ordered world.

But the vision presented in Final Payments is not tragic; this is a comic novel, filled with and even preoccupied with jokes and humor. The despair and loss experienced by the protagonist, Isabel Moore, is only half the story, just as Gordon's disappointment with the Lefebvrists is only half the story she has recorded of her adult relationship with the Church and with the idea of faith. Gordon tells the rest of the story in an article on her own devotion to the Virgin Mary published in a 1982 issue of Commonweal. This article is a corrective to the Lefebvre article; if the Lefebvrists merely reminded Gordon that the symbol-structure of her childhood Church had lost its ontological foundation for her, images of Mary suggest to Gordon that, even without metaphysical certainties, human symbols and words do have a tentative and at least hypothetical efficacy. A devotion to the Mother of God turns Gordon away from her yearning for a past, transcendent perfection—a perfection that seems predicated on a hatred of physicality—and toward an openness to the incarnate world of imperfect present and future contingency. And this is strikingly similar to the resolution achieved by Isabel in Final Payments.

The Harper's and the Commonweal articles, therefore, present in an expository form the problem and resolution that constitute the narrative movement of Final Payments: Isabel Moore nostalgically tries to regain her solid religious past, in which language transparently mediated divine reality, but the faith she finally achieves is founded on a new use of language—not fiercely literal but metaphorical, imaginative, lightly comic. So before examining Isabel's transformation of the grammar of her youth, it would be well to look at Gordon's articulation of these issues in the magazine articles.

The complete title of Mary Gordon's article on Archbishop Lefebvre contains the words, “a Romance of the One True Church” (my italics). And there is much about the idea of a lingering remnant of the pre-Vatican II Church that sparks in Gordon a girlish sense of romantic dreaminess:

l‘incident Lefebvre engages my imagination. It inspires in me an embarrassing richness of nostalgic fantasy: sung Gregorian Masses, priests in gold, the silence of Benediction, my own sense of sanctity as an eight-year-old carrying a lily among a hundred other eight-year-olds on Holy Thursday.

At the most personal level, therefore, the existence of Lefebvre's radically conservative movement suggests to this woman who grew up in a now-changed Church the possible persistence of childhood innocence. Her ideas about Lefebvre's societies are all lovely and exciting, like a fairy tale. And the Archbishop himself, in Gordon's imagination, is decked out in dashing fairy-tale splendor; he is an elegant old French gentleman, a monarchist, a man who would surely not have been at home among those original, seedy Apostles, but who would have been “a smash with one of the Medici popes” in a world of “chateaux silver, ancient and perfect servants, a chapel near the tennis courts.”

But for all the fancifulness, the rigor about what Lefebvre represents to Mary Gordon indicates a classical precision beneath Gordon's romanticism: “I was interested … in a movement that combined the classical ideal of the Gregorian mass with the romantic image of the foreign life.” This paradoxically romantic classicism is founded on Gordon's desire for linguistic exactness, a desire to possess and utilize a body of language that has a solid base—that does not, in the Derridean sense, “defer” meaning, but that presents it purely and immediately.

In the very first paragraph of the Lefebvre article, Gordon describes her childhood Church as

that repository of language never to be used again, words white-flat and crafted: “monstrance,” “chasuble”; words shaped to fit into each other like spoons, words that overlap and do not overlap, words that mark a way of life that has a word for every mode, a category for each situation: “gifts of the Holy Ghost,” “corporal works of mercy,” “capital sins,” “cardinal virtues.”

There is a grandeur about the words that Gordon chooses to remember (surely, like most young Catholics, she linked the word “monstrance” with “monstrous”), but it is an absolutely clear grandeur. These are words that have no ambiguity; they describe definite objects that exist in one definite place, the Church. Even such seemingly huge categories as the “gifts of the Holy Ghost” and the “corporal works of mercy” have been precisely spelled out and delimited by the Baltimore Catechism: there are seven (that lucky number) of each, no more and no less.

And Gordon's description of Lefebvre, not surprisingly, focuses on his rhetoric, his grand and solid use of words:

His rhetoric is desperate, and it has the excitement of desperation. It has the excitement, too, of an archaism revivified: it is the language of conflict, but a conflict that seems ancient, and consequently grand. … “You cannot marry truth and error,” he said in a sermon delivered in Lille in 1976, “because that is like adultery, and the child will be a bastard—a bastard rite for mass, bastard sacraments, and bastard priests.”

Bastard. Bâtard. How exciting, from the mouth of an archbishop. The world is serious; the truth is obvious; the lines are clear.

Gordon is excited by the solidity the word “bastard” takes on in Lefebvre's mouth. It is not just a tag, a combination of sounds that has been arbitrarily granted meaning. It has substance, essence.

This is Gordon's notion of the language of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, which Lefebvre's societies are desperately attempting to keep alive in a hostile modern world. It is a language-system that leaves no gaps; it makes signified objects and concepts perfectly present, just as God is said to be simply and unambiguously present in the Eucharist. In her nostalgia for this lost linguistic perfection—best preserved, of course, in Latin, a language that has not been knocked around the common workaday world for several centuries—Gordon is exemplifying what Derrida calls “an ethic of nostalgia for origins, an ethic of archaic and natural innocence, of purity of presence and self-presence in speech.”

Gordon does not find this “purity”; her romanticism is punctured. After beginning her article with a fanciful lyricism, Gordon ends up presenting a coolly ironic portrait of an actual Lefebvrist priest whom she interviewed. And although his notions of theology and sexuality are surprisingly enlightened, the priest is as repellently intolerant as the Grand Inquisitor himself; he thinks, for example, that the medieval way of dealing with Protestants was “perfectly acceptable”: “They were more or less removed from the scene … \b]y being executed.” Gordon's most deflatingly satirical touch, though, is a comically understated criticism not of the priest's cruelty but of his taste:

He tells me they \the society] bought out the company that made St. Joseph Missals. I had one: I remember the glossy photographs beside appropriate feast days, the work of an artist who probably spent his secular life drawing for Ivory Snow. Before I know what I am saying I exclaim, “But St. Joseph Missals were the tackiest of any of them.” “Tacky?” he says, looking puzzled. I am again disappointed; I cannot take seriously the spiritual life of anyone for whom “the tacky” is not a lively concept.

This article is primarily a record of disillusionment. But it does reveal two important characteristics of Gordon's eventual strategy for dealing with the loss of certainty: beauty and humor. Though words and symbols no longer possess an absolute metaphysical base, Gordon finds that they can still be used with aesthetic care and tastefulness. (Indeed, the fact that the Society of St. Pius X displays not the elegance of the Middle Ages but the tackiness of the 1950s is one of her most severe disappointments.) And humor, people's ability to share a joke, gives language and erotic energy, a power to connect: comedy effects at least a hypothetical and analogous approach to the now-vanished presence. The Lefebvrist priest may be tasteless and bigoted, but Gordon maintains her own humanity and good spirits by writing about him gracefully and comically.

In her Commonweal article on the Virgin Mary, Gordon more explicitly sets forth her faith in the values of humor and of beauty, especially of physical beauty. The article begins, in fact, with a Catholic-school joke about the ridiculous lengths the Church used to go to in order to suppress bodily beauty:

Queens in the nineteen sixties had almost as many Catholic high schools as bakeries. Towards the spring of the year, the approach of Senior Prom meant big business for local merchants. There was one store—which girls in my school were urged to patronize—that had a special section devoted to what were called “Mary-like gowns.” The Mary-like gown was an invention of nuns and a coalition of sodalists, and its intent, I think, was to make prom dresses as much like habits as possible. We used to go and try the dresses on for a laugh. They were unbelievably ugly. The yardage of material could have dressed even an Irish family for a year.

This is a joke with deep significance, a joke that casts a shadow even on the grandest ages of that linguistically perfect Church. If the tackiness of the 1950s and the relativism of the 1960s had never occurred, Gordon might still have had serious problems with the Church: its focus on spiritual essences (attractive though that focus seems to Gordon in the Lefebvre article) has historically resulted in a denigration of the physical world. Particularly unsettling to Gordon is the fact that women have come under special attack: the desire of “nuns and a coalition of sodalists” to cloak girls' bodies under yards of ugly material is only a ludicrous modern version of the Church's long-time hatred of women and of all physical bodies.

The first section of this article, in fact, is not an attack on the styleless contemporary Church at all; this time it is the most revered thinkers of the Catholic tradition, the “Fathers of the Church,” that Gordon criticizes. Their thinking, she maintains, was “poisoned by misogyny, and a hatred of the body, particularly female sexuality.” She proceeds to quote hate-filled statements from Tertullian, Augustine, and Jerome, among others, pronouncements that must have seemed to them as serious, obvious, and clear as Archbishop Lefebvre's use of the word “bastard”; this time, however, Gordon is not charmed or excited. She ends her attack by quoting a statement made by St. John Chrysostom, a man whose nickname (“Chrysostom” means “golden-tongued”) marks him as one of the supreme guardians of that ontologically solid linguistic system. Here is how Chrysostom describes female nature:

The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food. … If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulcher.

The great tradition of the Church may have possessed a sublime and stylish vision of transcendent perfection, but it was not very good on the subjects of physicality and of women. Her realization about the position of women throughout history (and Gordon opines that Christianity has treated women a little better, at least, than many other groups) frees Gordon from what she calls “historical romanticism,” in which she had indulged in the Lefebvre piece. Though the precision and the seeming solidity of the early Church remain enticing, the fact that she has a body—along with the fact that she is a woman—releases Gordon from her nostalgia for the past and pushes her in a new direction. And it is the image of Mary, the Mother of God, that forms the metaphorical bridge for Gordon, allowing her to take the best of the past Church (its spirituality, its clarity, and its aesthetic style) and project it into a limited, contingent world. One must, Gordon says, “sift through the nonsense and hostility that has characterized thought and writing about Mary, to find some images, shards, and fragments, glittering in the rubble.” As Gordon shows us these images, shards, and fragments, a coherent portrait of Mary begins to emerge, colored by a mixture of earthiness and aestheticism.

Gordon sees Mary's purity, her virginity, as indicating not a distaste for the temporal—and physical—human world, but rather an openness to it, expressed by the very curves and rhythms of her body: “I think of the curve of the body of a thirteenth century statue of the young Mother with her child. At ease in its own nature, swinging almost with the rhythms of maternal love, ready for life; radically open to experience, to love.” Mary's innocence, Gordon continues, is “an innocence that is rooted in the love of the physical world.” Even as the Queen of Heaven, Mary is not divorced from the temporal world, lost in some infinitely transcendent perfection; she is “enthroned, not above her children, but in the midst of them.”

It is important to note that Gordon achieves this vision of Mary not by ignoring the Church's traditional symbol-system, but rather by entering that system carefully and selectively. She draws her striking, and rather erotic, image of Mary's rhythmically curved figure from a thirteenth-century statue of the Madonna, and in other sections of the essay she meditates on some of the Church's other great artworks: Annunciations by Leonardo and by Fra Angelica, a Winchester Cathedral sculpture, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, Bellini's Pieta.

So even though the system of precise and definite symbols represented by Gordon's childhood Church has lost its vitality (being maintained, now, by a small band of Long Islanders who have no concept of “the tacky”), Gordon still finds value in clarity and precision—but these have become for her ethical and aesthetic rather than metaphysical qualities:

I think, finally, it is through poetry, through painting, sculpture, music, through those human works that are magnificently innocent of the terrible strain of sexual hatred by virtue of the labor, craft, and genius of their great creators, that one finds the surest way back to the Mother of God.

Gordon's aesthetic basis for judging human sign-making no longer permits her to assert that words and images perfectly mediate a transcendent realm. Her own words about Mary cannot be final, a closed system like that presented by the Baltimore Catechism; they can only record a series of relations rooted within the contingent, temporal world:

I offer here, no system, but a set of meditations. I offer no final words, since, for a woman to come to terms with this woman who endures beloved despite a history of hatred, she must move lightly and discard freely. … She must put out for those around her scattered treasure, isolates without a pattern whose accumulated meaning comes from the relations of proximity.

This is a highly qualified statement about our ability to know. Its relativism sounds very nearly postmodernist; Gordon seems to imply that one cannot write about things, but only about differences—gaps—between things. Nonetheless, Gordon's field of interest is clearly substantive rather than negative. Though she is unable to speak definitively, to mediate absolute presence, she can still meditate at least hypothetically on a woman who is no less than the mother of God.

So the Lefebvre and the Mary articles together reveal Gordon's replacement of a metaphysically solid, perfectly defined system of words and other signs with a fragile, temporally limited, “scattered treasure”—which is nonetheless clear, beautiful, and often funny (one of Gordon's favorite statues of the young Mary has the girl looking amused; “Her mouth, a thin identured curve, turns up with pleasure”). That previous perfect union with the ground of being has been exchange for a sort of aesthetic eroticism, a beautiful and humorous expression of radical openness to the world. And this movement from metaphysics to aesthetics, which Gordon describes in these articles, is much like the narrative movement of Final Payments, the story of a young woman who loses her religious certainty and then, after a period of despair, gains a real—though tentative and uncertain—religious and human faith.

The first chapter of Final Payments ends with Isabel Moore, the protagonist and narrator, thinking to herself, “This is no longer my father's house.” The novel has opened with the funeral of Joseph Moore, Isabel's radically conservative Catholic father, whom Isabel—alone, without a single day's respite—has nursed for the past eleven years. And as if this were not enough to have made him the most significant figure in Isabel's life, Joseph Moore has been no ordinary father: with his fierce Catholic absolutism he has reigned over Isabel with the power of an autocratic medieval pope, banishing her only boyfriend and expecting her complete submission, body and soul, to his needs and dogmas. From the novel's first pages, Isabel vividly conveys the way Joseph Moore has, for her, been not just a father but an image of the Father, both dreadful and loving. Wilfrid Sheed claims, in fact, that despite his physical absence (like God's), Joseph Moore hovers over the novel as its most impressive and even attractive character:

… astonishingly he emerges as the most impressive and attractive character in the book—especially astonishing since he is never on stage but has to dominate from the clouds, and from memory. Gordon has conveyed his mere emanations, his perfectionism, his intelligence, his sheer size of spirit so well that the reader too half-sees that after him the outside world would seem trashy and pointless. The religious vocation has been made incarnate.

So when Isabel says that the house is no longer her father's, she is not simply recording the fact that Joseph Moore has died and that the building in which she grew up, with all its books and knickknacks and furnishings, no longer belongs to him. Rather, the statement “This is no longer my father's house,” with its unmistakably Biblical sound (it is as if the Holy of Holies had lost its holiness), points toward the novel's large philosophical and religious themes. Isabel has to live in a world in which “the Father” is no longer immediately present; the death of a parent has effected an absolutely metaphysical rupture in Isabel's life.

Derrida has described the “rupture” that effected the “destruction of the history of metaphysics,” the advent of postmodernism:

The event I called a rupture … presumably would have come about when the structurality of structure had begun to be thought. … Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought of in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse.

Isabel, with her nearly obsessive concern about centers (“center” is one of her favorite words), connects herself with these Derridean issues. Her father's bed, she tells us early in the novel, occupied the exact center of his bedroom; without that center, she feels painfully abandoned: “I thought of my father and his sureness, his body in the bed at the center of the room, and I wanted to cry out, ‘I am terribly alone.’” Later she indicates that the loss of her father, her center, has even resulted in a loss of a permanent and unshifting self: “I was not \any longer] the person who lived with my father's body in the center of my life, in my father's house, with his bed at the center of it.” Her unswervingly Catholic father was Isabel's “fixed locus,” her guarantee that particular words and things had ontological substance and significance, that they could not be replaced by Derrida's “infinite number of sign-substitutions.” We will see that Isabel's ultimate resolution of this problem of uncenteredness, like Gordon's in the Mary article, is a movement toward a tentative ethicality and faith rather than toward Derrida's “Nietzschean affirmation … of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin”; although it addresses postmodernist issues, this is certainly not a deconstructive text in the manner of John Barth or Thomas Pynchon. Nonetheless, Isabel's problem—the loss of father, of center—looks distinctly like a “destruction of the history of metaphysics.” So before leaping to Isabel's (and Gordon's) special resolution to the problem, we must look more closely at the problem itself and precisely identify the way in which Isabel has lost a “center.” We should first examine, therefore, the character of Joseph Moore.

Joseph Moore, as Isabel describes him, takes on an exotic romanticism similar to that of Gordon's Archbishop Lefebvre. Like Lefebvre, Moore was a grand, and fiercely intolerant, aristocrat (“In history, his sympathies were with the Royalists in the French Revolution, the South in the Civil War, the Russian czar, the Spanish Fascists”) whose mind had “the endurance of a great Renaissance sculpture.” He was the “neighborhood intellectual,” a professor of medieval literature at a small Catholic college on Long Island; even his McCarthyism and racism, therefore, were subordinate to a devotion to Old-World, aesthetic ideals. It is as if, like Wordsworth's quintessentially romantic Child, Joseph Moore trailed “clouds of glory”:

They should have had for his funeral a Mass of the Angels, by which children are buried in the Church. His mind had the brutality of a child's or an angel's: the finger of the angel points in the direction of hell, sure of the justice of the destination of the soul he transports.

Obviously, in spite of the references to angels and children and to medieval aestheticism, Moore—again, like Lefebvre—stood for a classical rigor rather than a romantic, lyrical softness; “softmindedness” was something he had no tolerance for. His childlikeness was brutal.

But he was most brutally childlike in his faith, which was absolute and unequivocal:

For my father, the refusal of anyone in the twentieth century to become part of the Catholic Church was not pitiable; it was malicious and willful. Culpable ignorance, he called it. He loved the sense of his own orthodoxy, of holding out for the purest and the finest and the most refined sense of truth against the slick hucksters who promised happiness on earth and the supremacy of human reason.

Predictably, Moore was not terribly interested in the frills of Catholicism—the rosary beads, the plastic Marys, the novena books held together with rubber bands. The tough core of the Church for him was the Mass, in Latin, with the responses recited by the congregation:

He wrote scornful letters to The Tablet about pastors who encouraged the faithful to say the Rosary during Mass. The Mass, he said, was the Single Most Important Act in History. The Consecration, the Transubstantiation, was the central drama of Salvation.

Gordon's use of capital letters at this point is telling. These words, describing the events through which the Church mediates God's “real presence,” have a powerful ontological weight for believing Catholics. According to orthodox Catholic theology, the recitation of five Latin words—“Hoc est enim corpus meum”—transforms the substance (the essential thingness) of bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. It is hard to imagine language ever having a more substantive power to signify. And this, for Isabel, is the key to what her father and the Church of her childhood represent. When Isabel, after her father's death, expresses to her friend Liz a fear that her father was absurd, full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” Liz's answer sums up Joseph Moore: “Oh no. Jesus Christ, he signified. He signified all over the place.”

Isabel's eleven-year devotion to her disabled father has allowed her to live in this absolutely certain world in which words and symbols mediate a transcendent presence. She has given up her independence, her adulthood, her sexuality, but the spiritual returns have been enormous:

Does it suggest both the monstrosity and the confusion of the issue if I say that the day Dr. MacCauley told me about my father's stroke was of my whole life the day I felt most purely alive? Certainty was mine, and purity; I was encased in meaning like crystal.

She calls the event a “monstrosity”—a weighty word (remember “monstrance”). It has offered her certainty and purity; it has encased her in meaning, “like crystal.” Meaning—significance—has not been a fragile and arbitrary thing; it has possessed a diamond-hard solidity.

But it is a thing of the past. As the novel begins, Joseph Moore is being buried. The world of bodily contingency has fractured Isabel's crystalline certainty, has deprived her of her father's presence. Her first feeling after the funeral, when she finds herself alone in the house which is no longer her father's, is that the universe has opened up, that its center has lost its substantiality and become “airy”: … “life was space, the borders seemed so far away from the vast airy center that there was no help and I remembered my childhood dream of falling out of bed, through the floor, and simply falling.” The physical world, which her father had always disdained, now seems to her the only thing that is real. And its reality is merely the reality of change, of instability, of decay. This discovery horrifies her; when she sees broccoli “liquefying” in her refrigerator, she wants to “run away and set a match to the whole house.”

Isabel does not set fire to the house, but what she does seems almost as bad to her father's staunchly conservative friends. She sells the house and moves upstate to Ringkill to direct a social-welfare project. (In this novel about substantial centers around which perfect circles—or rings—can spin, Isabel's move to a place called “Ring-kill” has particular significance.) Almost immediately she has an affair with her friend's husband, the glamorous but oafishly insensitive politician John Ryan—it would be hard to imagine a man more different from her father. And she falls in love with another married man, Hugh Slade, a rational humanist who coolly describes her Catholic upbringing as “barbarous.” And although Isabel maintains her sense of humor and her extraordinary care about clarity and precision, she is slowly and inexorably made aware that her life has no center, that her certainty has crumbled. Having once been enveloped by her father's faith that the world is a sort of Dantesque commedia with a metaphysical and everlasting significance, that human beings clearly and certainly were created to know, love, and serve God in this life and to share in God's happiness for all eternity, she must now confront the possibility that everything, including herself, is a signifier lacking a signified: “What,” she wonders, “if you represented nothing but were only yourself?” If people and things represent “nothing” beyond themselves, then it seems to Isabel that there can be no larger order beneath the chaotic surface of everyday life; randomness is all.

As a social worker Isabel becomes even more aware of the randomness of human life; “there was no way,” she asserts, “of predicting what would make people happy, no way of controlling it.” In her own personal life, too, she is becoming dependent for happiness on Hugh Slade, a man who is not tied to her by blood or religion, but who in fact is tied to other people by marital and familial obligations. She is desperately troubled by the realization that she has become a slave to contingency, that her love for a particular person—a person who may die or leave her—throws her into a world in which everything is as unstable as the broccoli that liquefied in her refrigerator. When she is confronted by Hugh Slade's wife, who shrewdly argues that Isabel will have to give up Hugh to prove she is “a good person,” she cracks; she makes a final, frantic attempt to reconstitute the world of absolute certainty by replacing love with “charity,” by devoting herself not to people whom she cares about particularly and emotionally, but to someone whom she does not even like. She decides to move in with Margaret Casey.

Isabel was taught in school that love and charity—eros and agape—are very different things. And at that time she distinctly preferred eros:

Love and charity. One was that feeling below the breast, and the other was doing something, anything, to take people's pain away. I remembered the lettering on a bulletin board at Anastasia Hall: LOVE IS MEASURED BY SACRIFICE. And I remembered thinking how wrong that was, because the minute I gave up something for someone I liked them less.

“Ah,” Sister Fidelis had said when I asked her, “you don't have to like someone to love them in God.”

But who wants to be loved in God? … We want to be loved for our singularity, not for what we share with the rest of the human race. We would rather be loved for the color of our hair or the shape of our ankle than because God loves us.

Now, however, Isabel feels that she was caught in a terrible error. To prefer love—based on accidental singularities (hair color, ankle shape, feelings shared memories, jokes)—is to throw oneself into the randomness of the physical world, a world that can never have the sureness of Isabel's father and his solid pre-Vatican II Catholic religious system. Charity, according to Isabel and Sister Fidelis, cuts through the surface of accidents, making immediately present the metaphysical idea that all human beings possess an immortal soul designed in God's image. This notion of charity, in fact, is analogous to the dogma of Transubstantiation, which states that the accidents of the Eucharist (the physical appearances of bread and wine) are unimportant, that after the words of consecration are spoken, only the substance (Christ's body and blood) matters. So Isabel's decision to live a life of charity reflects an attempt to return to dogmatic Catholicism, with an absolute symbol-system that purports to mediate pure presence—purports to “mean,” to “stand for.” “If we can love the people we think are most unlovable,” she says, “if we can get out of this ring of accident, of attraction, then it's a pure act, love; then we mean something, we stand for something.”

Within this “ring of accident,” Margaret Casey is, for Isabel, as unlovable as a person could be. The housekeeper who once wanted to marry Joseph Moore, Margaret is the one human being whom Isabel has always unequivocally loathed; the mere sound of her “slopping around the house in her slippers,” Isabel says, “is the sound of my nightmares.” Taking care of Margaret, therefore, seems to Isabel to be the purest of pure acts, an act that is utterly unconnected with the world of human particularity. Isabel will continue to feel disgust for this woman, and she surely will not be thanked; Margaret, incapable of gratitude, behaves as if Isabel's presence were in fact an imposition on her. But this now seems to Isabel much the better. Individual feelings, cravings for thanks, all partake of the random, accidental world; Isabel wants to experience perfect Catholic charity, unblemished by worldly eros:

There would be no more talk or thought of love that could be gained or lost by accidents, by jokes or the angle of a shoulder. I would love Margaret now as God loved His creatures: impartially, impervious to their individual natures and thus incapable of being really hurt by them.

Faced with the reality of a world in which the certain meanings of her childhood have fled, in which things represent no larger reality but are only themselves, Isabel has built a fortress against things and their randomness. Using appropriately Catholic language, she calls it a “sanctuary.” She has returned, she thinks, to her father's house.

But it is a house without a foundation, a sanctuary without God. Joseph Moore was able genuinely to represent for Isabel the certainty of the Catholic symbol-system; even after the grown-up Isabel began to lose her faith in the Church itself, her father continued to exist as a center, a “real presence.” This new attempt to attain certainty, however, consists of forms without substance, of Catholic behavior without Catholic conviction. Isabel starts again to employ the language of the Church, but she no longer believes that it has meaning. She begins to pray the rosary with Margaret, suffering like a martyr (“The bones in my knees began to grow into the floor like roots; my back was stiff and painful with kneeling”), but the formerly efficacious words are now void of significance:

… I could no longer imagine a face who would be interested in me above all others, who cared for the nature and the quality of my prayer. I said these prayers because it pleased Margaret. But they brought me no comfort; there was no face, wise, amused, and dangerously open, listening to the words I sent out like cigar-shaped missiles to the neutral, heated air.

The language of traditional Catholicism is supposed to mediate God's presence. But like Mary Gordon visiting the Lefebvrists, Isabel has returned to her Catholic past and found only an absence.

Furthermore, Isabel's new experience of charitable martyrdom lacks the crisp rigor which her charity possessed when she nursed her father; in that earlier time, she felt her “visible martyrdom” as “sheer relief: a grapefruit ice that cleanses the palate between courses of a heavy meal.” But everything with Margaret seems hot and cloying rather than cool and invigorating. Isabel this time does not cleanse her palate; instead she grows fat eating sickeningly sweet foods that make her palate “heavy and dull.” The purity of her love for her father encased Isabel, as we saw, “in meaning like crystal.” Now, however, she sees herself “cased in the pink, sweating flesh of a pig; I could imagine my eyes grown small and light like a pig's. I wanted to sleep.”

By charitably adopting Margaret, Isabel was trying to recapture the one true Language, the perfect sign-system in which words and symbols provide a perfectly crystallized meaning. But something has gone wrong. With Margaret, in fact, words—not just prayers and religious language, but all words—simply cease to matter, to be different from one another. Margaret's statements to Isabel are deadeningly trite (“Good afternoon. Get your beauty sleep?”). And even Isabel's rigorous need to differentiate between good literature and bad is quenched: when Margaret prefers tacky grocery-store romances, by authors like “Regina Carey,” to Jane Eyre, Isabel represses her disgust. “It was caring about things so strongly,” she says, “whether Charlotte Brontë was better than Regina Carey, that had caused my trouble.”

Isabel is overlooking the fact that a careful use of language, the sort of thing that distinguishes a Charlotte Brontë from a Regina Carey, was highly valued by the very sources of her present notion of charity: her father and the Catholic Church. Isabel has said that her father, unlike Margaret, “loved books, and jokes, and arguments, … loved my stories about impossible places when really I had just gone to the grocer's.” And the Church's “white-flat and crafted” words (“monstrance,” “chasuble,” “gifts of the Holy Ghost,” “cardinal virtues”), memorialized by Gordon in the Lefebvre article, are founded on the belief that distinctions can be made, that one thing is not another.

So Isabel's “charitable” flight to Margaret is not a return to past certainty at all; it is a lapse into a despairing state in which all words and things—whether certain or hypothetical—have been dissolved. It no longer makes any difference to Isabel what she says, what she does, what she looks like. Her body becomes heavier and heavier, and she is dragged by Margaret to a beauty salon where she receives a hideously archaic haircut (a “bubble cut”), yet her only response is, “What did it matter?”

But the novel ends optimistically. After her experiment with perfect charity toward Margaret has driven her to a nervous breakdown, Isabel returns to a tentative health. And her resolution of her problem is founded not on an acceptance of the Derridean mise en abyme but on a new understanding of the Catholic symbol-system itself; Isabel appropriates a sort of humorous, erotic Catholic aestheticism, similar to that articulated by her creator in the article on the Virgin Mary. Mary Gordon, as we saw, was able to reestablish a personal veneration for Mary, assembled from images and fragments gleaned from a largely misogynous storehouse. Gordon offered, in her article, “no system, but a set of meditations”—meditations filled with an earthy aestheticism and enlivened with humor. Likewise Isabel discovers that Catholic images and words, though for her no longer absolute, can have a hypothetical and perhaps metaphorical efficacy: the Greek root of the word “metaphor” (metapherein) means “to carry over,” and Catholic images, words, and stories serve Isabel as a bridge between a classically rigorous system in which words mean and a decentered, fleshly world in which words and objects have no stable significance or substance. This bridge allows Isabel to carry over her care for clarity and beauty into the physical, temporal world.

And the bridge's keystone is the crucial Christian notion of the Incarnation. The final chapter of the novel presents a series of epiphanies; events occurring during Holy Week—a time when the Church celebrates the belief that Christ had a body, which died and rose—awaken in Isabel a realization of the value and beauty of the bodily world, and of words that talk about it carefully, elegantly, and humorously.

Holy Week begins with a visit from Father Mulcahy, the kindly old priest who has always loved Isabel. He is not a “perfect” Catholic like Joseph Moore (he is an alcoholic), and he is not capable of listening to the “absolute truth” (he has refused to hear Isabel's confession, afraid to learn about her recent un-Catholic activities). But he is a man with whom Isabel can laugh, sing, be human:

His fine, cared-for fingers played chords. He began singing in his high, boy's voice, “I‘ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”

I joined in. I could sing the harmony; I had sung it with my father. And I had sung it with Hugh. I could never tell Father Mulcahy the truth about Hugh. But that was all right. I could not tell the truth, but we could sing at the piano.

The world of particular affections, of eros, is for Isabel given some symbolic—though not absolute—significance and value by virtue of the fact that a priest cares about the sensuous harmony of music. And the world of sexual pleasure is ritualistically joined with that of absolute religious rigor: Isabel has sung this harmony with both Hugh Slade and her father.

Father Mulcahy, furthermore, tells Isabel that even the Bible, the Word of God, can be interpreted as being concerned not just with transcendent substance (that absolute, suprapersonal perfection which Isabel has tried to make present for herself through her martyred practice of “charity”) but with temporal, physical accidents (those things that are components of eros). The priest tells her to watch her weight, to take care of her body:

“Thou shalt not kill? What does that have to do with it?”

“It means slow deaths, too,” he said.

Isabel's most striking Holy Week epiphany is about to be inspired by other words from the Bible—but these words will have an evocative, personal, associative significance for Isabel rather than an absolutely substantive meaning. When Margaret, after Father Mulcahy leaves, begins to behave particularly obnoxiously, whining that she is “a poor woman,” Isabel explodes. Her feelings for this woman, which she has been repressing, come pouring out. And her emotions of anger and loathing borrow their particular form from a statement originally made by Jesus himself: “‘The poor you have always with you,’ I shouted, slamming the kitchen door.”

In the same epiphanic moment, Isabel discovers not only these words themselves, but the meaning of the words. And she discovers, in a broader way, that words carry their meanings not simply and unequivocally (the way, for example, policemen carry guns), but gently, contextually—within narratives, chains of shifting relations. Isabel's strikingly insightful, though also strikingly personal, interpretation of Jesus's cryptic words is based on her seeing the words relationally, both in relation to the other characters within a Biblical story (Martha and Mary, Judas) and in relation to her own current, particular situation. Her insight, therefore, should be looked at in its full context, so I must quote at length:

It is one of the marvels of a Catholic education that the impulse of a few words can bring whole narratives to light with an immediacy and a clarity that are utterly absorbing. “The poor you have always with you.” I knew where Christ had said that: at the house of Martha and Mary. Mary had opened a jar of ointment over Christ's feet. Spikenard, I remembered. And she wiped his feet with her hair. Judas had rebuked her; he had said that the ointment ought to be sold for the poor. But, St. John had noted, Judas had said that only because he kept the purse and was a thief. And Christ had said to Judas, Mary at his feet, her hair spread around him, “The poor you have always with you: but me you have not always.”

And until that moment, climbing the dark stairs in a rage to my ugly room, it was a passage I had not understood. It seemed to justify to me the excesses of centuries of fat, tyrannical bankers. But now I understood. What Christ was saying, what he meant, was that the pleasures of that hair, that ointment, must be taken. Because the accidents of death would deprive us soon enough. We must not deprive ourselves, our loved ones, of the luxury of our extravagant affections. …

I knew now I must open the jar of ointment. I must open my life. I knew now that I must leave.

Religious language has regained a significance for Isabel, but it is a contextual, personal significance, involved with the changing world of human accident.

By the time Good Friday arrives, Isabel is ready to attend a service that will have meaning for her. But it will not be the sort of meaning that was mediated by the one true Language of her childhood Church, which purported to make present a transcendent substance or center, a permanent truth that is divorced from the human condition. The words and symbols of the Church now act as more limited—but also more rich and evocative—signifiers, simultaneously general and personal, tinged with tragedy and humanity:

The church was dark with the number of the congregation. And the statues, covered in their purple cloth, stole what light there would have been available. … I thought of Christ, of the death of Christ. We were here to acknowledge the presence of death among us. We were here to acknowledge our own inevitable deaths.

My father was dead; there was the pain. I had loved him, but my love had not been able to help him. … I would die; everyone in this church would die. Everyone I knew and loved would die. …

That was what we were kneeling to acknowledge, all of us, on this dark afternoon. We were here to say that we knew about death, we knew about loss, that it would not surprise us. But of course it would surprise us; it had surprised even Christ in the garden.

A priest begins the service, reading “in the voice of God”: “My people, what have I done to you? Or in what have I offended you, answer Me?” Isabel's reaction to the words of the service reflects a new compromise between the unquestioning dogmatism of her father and her own recent despairing attitude about the value of language. The issue of absolute truth or falsity no longer seems so pressing to her; the words of this service have an efficacy that is immanent and communal rather than transcendent:

… I had wanted to hear those words spoken, the harsh Old Testament words and then the words of John. I wanted to hear the story said aloud, and I wanted to hear about His rest in the dark tomb. I wanted to hear it in the presence of my kind.

For there was death; you had to know that, and betrayal, and the negligence of friends at crucial moments, and their sleep. I wanted that acknowledged in the presence of my kind also.

This realization of the certainty of death, of the ineluctable power of the world of decaying flesh, instills in Isabel a paradoxical appreciation of the value of bodies; if the death of bodies is important, even to God, then bodies themselves—“accidental” though they may be—are important:

I walked home with Margaret, feeling my body moving on its clever legs. Christ had suffered in the body, and I too had a body. I knew it false but capable of astonishing pleasures.

So the novel ends not with the nostalgic disappointment articulated by Gordon in the Lefebvre article, but rather with the sort of tentatively faithful meditativeness represented by Gordon's article on the Virgin Mary. When we demand that words refer to an absolute truth, the novel seems to say, they inevitably disappoint; language works, but even when it is used with aesthetic elegance and precise care it is capable only of expressing relative truths, of telling stories. At their best, though, these stories have an erotic energy, an ability to connect people (it is important to Isabel that she hear the Biblical words “in the presence of \her] kind”), by bringing the hearers more deeply and compassionately into the painful world of human accident.

Or by making them laugh. Although Isabel's story is painful, Final Payments, as I said earlier, is a comic novel. As Wilfrid Sheed has noted, the conditions Gordon has set for herself in this novel are “that the story must be sad, the telling funny.”

Sheed, however, claims that the sadness is primary, and that the comedy is sardonic and wry—“the best way to talk about” the fact that God “has died in this century.” But although he has appreciated Gordon's humor, Sheed has failed to note that this humor gives the novel a generous, affirmative tone. Gordon's comedy is about faith rather than despair; for Gordon, I think, one of the best proofs that words can signify, can go beyond mere self-referentiality, is that they unite people through laughter.

Indeed, after the long and moving church-service sequence, Gordon concludes Final Payments with a scene in which her characters' friendships are revivified by a joke. Isabel, in the final page of the novel, is escaping from Margaret; her long-time friends Eleanor and Liz have come to drive her away. It is the first time they have seen how she has allowed her physical appearance to deteriorate:

Liz looked at me, her eyes flicking up and down in quick judgment. “Who did your hair? Annette Funicello?”

This joke seems as filled with “miracle, mystery, and authority” as any Good Friday service; it is not about the death of God at all:

The three of us laughed. It was a miracle to me, the solidity of that joke. Even the cutting edge of it was a miracle. And our laughter was solid. It stirred the air and hung above us like rings of bone that shivered in the cold, gradual morning.

The death of her father had ruptured for Isabel the world's ontological solidity, effecting a Derridean “destruction of the history of metaphysics”; it had decentered the ring of her life, sending her to “Ringkill.” And now a mere joke has created a new solidity, stirring the air like new rings—and these are as sturdy as bone. Language may no longer have the “white-flat and crafted,” categorical certainty of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, but it still performs miracles.

The novel, in fact, implicitly affirms the value of language even in its gloomiest sequences: there are few novelistic characters for whom exactness of word choice and attention to the sheer beauty of language are more important than they are for Isabel Moore. Throughout the book, Isabel has used words like “clarity,” “purity,” “certainty,” and especially “center” with such frequency and care that they begin to seem as solid as the word “bastard” sounded in Archbishop Lefebvre's mouth. Although it is her lover Hugh Slade who, according to Isabel, is able to take words like “devoted” and “duty” and “polish them like stones,” it is really Isabel herself who is the novel's primary word-polisher. It is through her aesthetic, erotic, humorous care with language that a bridge has been created between the beautiful but rigid (and lost) world of Joseph Moore and the world of temporal humanity: “That, at least, I owed to my father—making the effort to find the proper words for things.”

The absolute ontological foundations of words have for Isabel become relativized; language has become for her a collection of metaphors (a “scattered treasure,” as Gordon calls it in the Mary article) rather than a closed system mediating “real presence.” But Isabel shows that language nonetheless can effect at least partial and hypothetical communication between people—and maybe even between human beings and God—if the words are polished like stones, if they tell stories, and if they are employed with humor.

And by presenting Isabel's ultimate faith that human beings in the modern world can still articulate a religious vision if they employ a narrative rather than a doctrinal discourse, Final Payments seems to be making a larger statement about the efficacy of storytelling for pursuing religious questions; this is a religious novel about the religious value of novels. Gordon demonstrates here that narrative can consider religious issues imaginatively, metaphorically, even playfully, without freezing them into dogma. This means that, for Gordon, religious truths cannot be stated definitively; there is no One True (and Literal) Language. But there are plenty of metaphors to weave, tales to spin, jokes to tell. The last words of Final Payments are, appropriately, “There was a great deal I wanted to say.”

Wendy Martin (review date 28 April 1991)

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SOURCE: “Passions and Provocations,” in New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1991, p. 9.

[In the following review, Martin offers favorable assessment of Good Boys and Dead Girls.]

Novelists who write essays on politics, education, religion, art and literature participate in a venerable tradition. In the 19th century, George Eliot, William Thackeray, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain and others demonstrated their prowess as critics; in the 20th, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble and Margaret Atwood, among others, have also made it clear that creative and critical skills can enrich each other.

With the publication of Good Boys and Dead Girls: And Other Essays, Mary Gordon shows us once again that there need not be a schism between the esthetic and the analytical. The author of four novels (Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels, The Other Side) and a collection of short stories (Temporary Shelter), Ms. Gordon is at her best in these essays, as well as in her fiction, when writing about the impact of Irish Catholicism on art and life. No longer conventionally religious herself, Ms. Gordon admires those writers who take a moral position: she praises Edna O'Brien's “pervasive ironic morality,” Flannery O'Connor's “conscious” Catholicism and Mary McCarthy's willingness to draw a “firm line.”

In contrast to her fierce appreciation of the life-affirming work of the painters Georgia O'Keeffe, Mary Cassat and Berthe Morisot, Ms. Gordon is outraged by Andy Warhol, whom she decries as nihilistic as well as untalented. Convinced that Warhol lived in a moral vacuum, Ms. Gordon is depressed by his love of mass culture and the popular image. While Ms. Gordon's high-church assessment of Warhol's work is questionable in the larger context of art history, her passionate response is provocative and bracing.

Although Ms. Gordon sometimes takes the high ground in these wide-ranging essays (many of which originally appeared in such publications as The Atlantic,Antaeus and The New York Times Book Review), she often tempers her judgments with humor as she offers acerbic reflections on the complexities of abortion, marriage, pregnancy and motherhood, family politics and class consciousness. Describing the range of responses to abortion, she writes: “After having an abortion, some women get dressed and go to Burger King and some want to die.” Similarly, her observations about her own religious childhood are funny yet poignant. She recalls putting thorns in her shoes “for penance,” pleading with the owner of the local gas station to take “the nude calendar off his wall,” begging the proprietor of a candy store to remove the sex magazines from his shelves. Her pious efforts failed: the thorns were so painful she sacrificed beatitude for comfort; the gas station owner exiled her from the premises; the candy store proprietor stopped giving \her] free egg creams.”

Ms. Gordon marvels at the difference between her own upbringing and that of her children. For her, the Devil “was real. And he was feared.” Nevertheless, she tells her own young daughter that the Devil is “like the banshee or the Loch Ness monster.” Noting the leap from the sacred to the secular in one generation, Ms. Gordon explores the contrast between believing in “seven capital sins, three theological virtues and four moral ones, seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Ghost” and in appreciating the esthetic form of the Mass and the literary power of liturgical language.

The first two sections of Ms. Gordon's book contain essays on literature and contemporary issues, but the third, “Parts of a Journal,” is more free in form. Here Ms. Gordon moves deftly, for example, from reflections on the female reproductive cycle to her interpretation of the Gospel of St. Mark, thereby creating her own hermeneutics. Reviewing her experience of pregnancy and motherhood, which she sees as inversely related to artistic accomplishment, she frets about the impact on her moral life of having children, describing “the membrane that my obsession with them creates between me and the outside world.” Yet Ms. Gordon does not hesitate to assert the sensory, even sensuous, pleasures of mothering: “A film of moisture covers my flesh and my son's. Both of us drift in and out of sleep. … I am ancient, repetitive. In a life devoted to originality, I adore the animal's predictability.”

Only the title essay, which is one of the few of these 28 pieces that have not been published previously, is disappointing. Arguing that American fiction and culture are too often based on the masculine “search for the unfettered self,” Ms. Gordon bemoans the association of “females with stasis and death; males with movement and life.” This bifurcation of active and passive spheres has been explored in greater literary complexity by feminist scholars in the past two decades. In addition, it lacks historical depth: what Ms. Gordon attributes to the American masculine imperative to escape “bruising authority” is in fact rooted in the more complex heritage of antinomianism—the conviction that subjective experience is as important as religious doctrine—that was the basis of the trial of Anne Hutchinson, the 17th-century Puritan who was tried as a heretic for holding Bible study sessions in her kitchen. Had Ms. Gordon more clearly understood the origins of the American insistence on autonomous selfhood and subjectivity (the “escape from fate,” as she phrases it), she would no doubt have seen its relevance to her own development as a novelist and critic.

Despite this lapse, Ms. Gordon's book is both rewarding and challenging, for it chronicles a mind shaped and informed by religious experience, but not constrained by theological dogma. Through these essays, the reader understands that, like the work of the writers and painters she most admires, Mary Gordon's own writing is buttressed by a powerful moral vision.

Alison Lurie (review date 8 August 1993)

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SOURCE: “Love Has Its Consequences,” in New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, pp. 1, 25.

[In the following review, Lurie offers praise for The Rest of Life.]

We read fiction, in part, to widen our social circle: to make new friends effortlessly, receive their confidences and enter their worlds. Mary Gordon's remarkable new book, The Rest of Life, fulfills this purpose wonderfully. Her heroines are all wholly alive and complex contemporary women, and they conceal nothing from us, not even their most intimate secrets.

Though they are full of dramatic incident, the three novellas that make up The Rest of Life do not have plots in the traditional sense. Instead, Ms. Gordon works like a sculptor who shapes and reshapes a figure by pressing bits of clay onto a wire armature. We learn about her characters as we would a new friend: first we hear the basic facts, then gradually more and more is revealed, not necessarily in chronological order

The nameless narrator of the first and perhaps most striking story, Immaculate Man, runs a shelter for battered women and is having a passionate affair with a Roman Catholic priest, an affair that she describes in vivid sensual and emotional detail. She is middle-aged, plain and outspoken, willing to question everything, even her own identity: “How do any of us recognize ourselves? By being around familiar objects, by performing actions that have some similarity to the actions of the past. I think that's all.”

Clement, the priest she loves, appears to her as beautiful, strong and perfect. When they meet he is a 43-year-old virgin who has never been close to another woman, and he declares that he will always love her, but she does not feel secure: “I'm a woman, how can I talk about possessing a man's body. How can you possess what you can't enter? What you don't invade, penetrate.”

She is consumed with the fear that Clement will leave her for someone who is not only younger and prettier but who needs him even more than she does—most likely one of the injured women in her shelter. She holds the belief, more common 150 years ago than it is today, that the weaker and more helpless a woman is, the more attractive she is to men: “I feel quite angry at some of the women I'm supposed to help. … I feel they've gotten away with something. Or is it that I feel they've taken something from me? The honored female place. The true, ancient name of woman? That in their supine posture, they arouse in men … the instinct to reach down and lift them up.”

If she loses Clement, she believes, her whole identity will change, she will become one of those women who will not “ever again be prized,” whose body “is of no concern to anyone except yourself. You worry that one day you might get sick, that you‘ll become a nuisance or a burden. But that's all. You know that's all your body will be to anybody else: a nuisance or a burden. No one will look at you again attentively or lovingly.”

The heroine of Living at Home, Ms. Gordon's second novella, is also nameless; but initially she seems far more in control of her life. She is attractive, articulate, well educated and successful. As the psychiatrist in charge of a clinic for autistic children, she is famous for her understanding of her young patients, who are hauntingly described: “Aloneness is what life is about for them. … They create edifices or machines to separate themselves from the world. One child would speak only inside a construction of cardboard, wires, tins. … They can't predict, so they are safe only in sameness. They are so far from an experience of time that only space and its emptiness remains.”

Yet she too is emotionally dependent on a man: an Italian journalist named Lauro who covers wars and revolutions for a London newspaper. She too is obsessed with losing her lover, in this case not to another woman but to illness or accidental death. When Lauro is about to have a tooth pulled she does not sleep the previous night, and blames herself for thinking that if he died in the dentist's chair she would not commit suicide.

She is also acutely jealous. She resents the fact that Lauro's visits cheer her invalid mother: “I wanted to take him away from her. I wanted to bring him home to the place where we live, where she doesn't live. … I was afraid she'd drain the life out of him. And I needed his life.”

These fears and jealousies seem to be related to her view of women as naturally alone and lost, like the autistic children. “I've often imagined myself homeless,” she says. “All women do, or many. They see themselves wandering, holding everything they own in a bag, sleeping against the warm sides of buildings in the freezing night.” Essentially, this strong and gifted woman can help only those she sees as weaker than she. Infinitely patient and kind at work, she is impatient and unkind to Lauro when he's ill.

Paola, the heroine of Ms. Gordon's third novella, The Rest of Life, is also someone whose existence centers on—and indeed has been ruined by—men. As a girl in Italy in the 1920s, she is taught to devalue herself, to conceal her knowledge and defer to male opinions. At the age of 15 she is persuaded to enter into a suicide pact by her first lover, a brilliant and disturbed 16-year-old boy called Leo; but at the last minute she refuses to die with him. When this becomes known she is disgraced; Leo's family calls her a whore and a murderer, and her beloved father sends her to America and never sees her again. Though Paola marries and has children, she passes the next 63 years in a state of emotional numbness. Only when she returns to Turin at the age of 78 is Paola able to forgive others and herself. But even then her deepest sympathy is for men who, like Leo, have died young.

Women today are said to have “come a long way.” Yet the heroines of the three novellas that compose The Rest of Life don't seem to have heard the news. Though they all have children they care for and full-time careers—perhaps typically, in what are called the “helping professions”—each of these women is focused on some man with whom she is involved in an obsessive, unequal sexual relationship.

What are we to make of this? Considering Mary Gordon's intelligence and her great gifts as a writer, I think we must read this book not as a post-feminist assertion of our essential emotional weakness but as a cautionary tale: a skilled and complex portrait of three strong, interesting and admirable women who have been deeply damaged by their dependence on men.

Lisa Zeidner (review date 8 August 1993)

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SOURCE: “Sacred and Profane,” in Washington Post Book World, August 8, 1993, p. 5.

[In the following review, Zeidner offers positive assessment of The Rest of Life.]

Since her first novel, the bestseller Final Payments, Mary Gordon's fiction has explored the tug-of-war between duty and desire. Her heroines are often good Catholic girls who sacrifice so much of their own happiness that their very identities become threatened. Gordon's mission is to shake up their complacency—to save them from cloistered virtue.

Her seventh book, The Rest of Life, comprises of three gentle, quiet novellas about Gordon's own brand of unassuming heroine. Two of these women are middle-aged, the third elderly, all at times in their lives when you'd expect them to have settled into cozy bargains with God. But they're still being tested, still having to struggle with the same old thorny issues: sex and death. As the pun in the title indicates, the rest of life isn't all that restful.

The 48-year-old narrator of Immaculate Man, a divorced mother who works in a shelter for battered women, was “brought up to be well-behaved. Brought up to practice all the minor virtues: thrift, honesty, politeness, temperance. All forms of moderation. Above all not to make a fuss.” So she's surprised to find herself embroiled in a love affair with Clement, a 45-year-old priest. Only Father Boniface, the homosexual priest who encouraged Clement to join the church and fought for years against his own sexual impulses towards his young charge, appreciates the depth and complexity of the narrator's hunger for her lover. The narrator's biggest fear is that Clement will leave her, that like Boniface she will have to confront death alone.

The narrator of Living at Home also fears death—her husband's. Lauro is a photo-journalist who travels gleefully to revolutions in remote countries. He's the narrator's third husband; she sets out to explain “why, although I'm far from irresponsible, I've left so many men, and why with Lauro I have been so happy.”

Like Immaculate Man, Living at Home is a graceful meditation on the pains and pleasures of middle age. The narrator, a psychiatrist, works with autistic children; Gordon deftly uses autism as a metaphor for all of our isolation and detachment. “I've always felt,” the narrator says, “that we all live so much of our lives as if we were in a sealed jar, the lid tight, looking out. Things tap on the outside—branches, fingers—but not hard enough. If they tapped too hard, there would be breakage and that mustn't be.”

The 78-year-old widow in The Rest of Life, the last novella, hides as tightly wrapped in her sorrow as those autistic children. Sixty-three years ago, she fled Turin in shame when she failed to keep her part in a suicide pact with her young lover and was held responsible for his death. She endured a loveless marriage, raising her children numbly. Now she travels back to Italy for the first time since her banishment, accompanied by her grown son and his girlfriend, and is forced to question the very nature of the way she has “lived, day by day, watching, waiting, she has never known for what.”

Only the title novella offers a plot, a set of events promising resolution. All of the tales are related in the present tense; pointedly, Gordon enters and exits in the middle of these lives, eschewing inflated climaxes and presenting instead a restrained contemplation about the fragility of daily happiness.

As a writer committed to Catholic themes, Gordon is unusual in that her characters search so hard for happiness—and often find it. Most Catholic novelists would agree with the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that there's “no real pleasure in life.” In some sense, the grimmer Catholic view of this world makes for a better story: It's bloodier and more dramatic. The ordinary people who populate Andre Dubus's fiction confront many of the same theological issues found here, but because they're often less sweet from the onset—they sin harder and more often—their stories have a more satisfying shape.

Unlike the novel, however, the novella form wears the lack of drama well. Gordon's prose isn't showy, but it's rich in image and connection. She excels in describing emotions in concrete physical terms—rooms, houses, landscapes, countries. Except for an occasional glut of rhetorical questions (“What does that mean, that she is living and he is not? What is the difference between life and death?”), The Rest of Life allow us to sink into the characters' thoughts as if sitting in a trellised garden in late afternoon, with nothing to do but enjoy the crisp solitude.

John B. Breslin (review date 25 February 1994)

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SOURCE: “Between a Romp and Redemption,” in Commonweal, February 25, 1994, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Breslin offers positive assessment of The Rest of Life.]

Three stories; three women; four men (one a father) to whom the women are bound by ties of obsession and memory; several children to whom the women are devoted, all but one boys, none fathered by their lovers. Such is the cast of characters in these novellas, Mary Gordon's first fiction since the generational saga of The Other Side, but what really matters here are the voices, in turn confessional, suspicious, celebratory, always questioning but finally, in the concluding story, grateful.

The first two stories, Immaculate Man and Living at Home, echo one another most closely. Both are first-person narratives by women in their forties who have been married and divorced, have achieved professional independence (significantly, as a social worker with battered women and a psychiatrist for autistic children), and have fallen in love, respectively, with a priest and a foreign journalist, men temperamentally unsuited to settling down, or, some might claim, to growing up. What links these two nameless women is their physical attachment to their lovers, their fear of displacement by abandonment or death. Each story ends with the words, “I don't know”; and what they don't know is how they'll live without their men, so binding has the covenant of the flesh become. And yet their voices rarely sound a self-pitying note; indeed, they often reveal a sharp-eyed realism. Father Clement's late sexual awakening restores the narrator's regard for her body, but it becomes wearying in its very devotion: “Sometimes,” she reflects, “I want a romp: athletic, careless, and desanctified.” The journalist's mortal fear of even the simplest medical procedure mocks his itch to be in the thick of violent revolutions.

At other times, however, the clarity gives way to the moral obtuseness of the age and the peculiar blindness of any égoisme à deux: despite her concern for autistic children, the second narrator has no serious qualms about having an abortion and confines her outrage to the journalist's insensitivity in planning a trip at the time of the procedure.

The perils—and delights—of romantic love experienced in middle age bind these couples together in a way that family or religious community failed to do. What Mary Gordon has so evocatively caught in her narrators' voices is how precious and precarious such late-blooming pleasures can be, like the pleasures of the stories themselves with their shifting promises of meaning.

In the third and most moving of the novellas, The Rest of Life, the focus shifts to youth and old age, but of the same woman. It is a long and long-resisted exercise of memory by a seventy-eight-year-old grandmother returning to Turin from America six decades after she was sent away in disgrace by her adored father; at fifteen she had fallen in love with a Byronesque youth a year older who subsequently committed suicide in a pact she failed to honor. Guilt, shame, loss shadow her subsequent life as nurse, wife, and mother, for no attachment, even that to her youngest and best loved son, can make up for her infatuation with the teen-aged romantic or her despair at the eclipse of her father's devotion.

Memory for her means something quite different from nostalgia; not the peaceful stream to be navigated at will but “the cataract, the overwhelming flood” she has kept dammed up. Even the city of her childhood becomes a menace when she tries to lead her son and his fiancée on a walking tour. Relieved at first because she finds no incriminating names in the phone book and no buildings remaining that might silently accuse her of youthful crimes, she becomes lost in streets she cannot remember, surrounded by buildings and wires that cast surreal shadows and remind her of Turin's reputation for black magic and hidden malice. Memory's power to shape and distort the present becomes palpable, but not inescapable.

For memory can also be cathartic, as she discovers when she decides to retrace alone the final journey with Leo to the medieval tower of their broken pact. She finds it half-demolished, marked off with a warning sign: Pericoloso, a place for uncomplicated young boys, so unlike Leo, to play their games. What she discovers and reclaims is her will to live, that deep desire for a shared happiness that led her to offer her life to Leo but stopped her from taking it. What she leaves behind is her guilt, her bitterness at life's unfairness. Coming back to Turin, to her son and his African fiancée, she discovers, like Gabriel Conroy at the end of Joyce's short masterpiece, that the dead absolve more than they blame the living: “the dead, being one and many, knew there was nothing to forgive.” And so the story that began in dread ends in gratitude, transmuting memory into a hymn of celebration for “all that has gone before us, everything, all things, the living and the dead. … Si, grazie.

A rather different ending from the agnosticism of the heart that concludes the first two stories. Is it an epistemological advance or simply an idiosyncracy of old age? Perhaps the lyricism of that ending, with all its echoes of “The Dead” (“A boy like you died here. It might have been because of me.”), makes most sense as a testament of independence. For the achievement of this reluctant pilgrim has been to become her own woman, freed in memory now from lover and father as she had already been freed by widowhood from a husband she respected but could never love. It is a freedom her sister narrators might well envy but would likely want to postpone.

John Leonard (review date 6 May 1996)

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SOURCE: “She Lost Her Father,” in The Nation, May 6, 1996, pp. 24-6, 28.

[In the following review, Leonard offers favorable evaluation of The Shadow Man.]

“I love you more than God,” David Gordon told his daughter, Mary, before dying of a heart attack when she was 7. His only child, than whom there's no brainier writer or reader, no more resourceful archeologist of hidden meanings, has worried this bone, like a hound of heaven, ever since: “I didn't know, and still don't, if he meant he loved me more than he loved God or more than God loved me. It almost doesn't matter. It was a serious thing to say and it scared me.”

It also sounds like a curse. No one, not even a parent, should have such power over our imagining of ourselves. Nor ought any child need to love him back so much, at whatever cost. But David taught Mary to read when she was 3; to memorize the Latin Mass when she was 5; to dwell in libraries and ideas. “He ripped a picture of Beethoven out of the encyclopedia and hung it near my toy box.” The only other picture allowed in the house was a print of Holbein's Thomas More; no landscapes, no still lifes, certainly not any modern art, which he considered “dangerous, and ugly, too.” Not even any television. Instead, the Easter show at Radio City, where the Rockettes dressed up as angels and nuns. And Six O'Clock Saints, where Mary learned the story of Saint Nicholas, who reassembled little boys who had been dismembered and pickled. And in a magazine her father edited, The Children's Hour, tales of the super-dutiful daughters of Prospero, Rip Van Winkle and the Chinese mandarin Kuan-Yo.

In Lafcadio Hearn's “The Soul of the Bell,” Kuan-Yo, an adviser to the emperor, supervises the construction of the world's most perfect bell. But the heated metals of gold, silver and brass won't blend, and the bell can't be cast. To save his life, Kuan-Yo consults the usual wise old man on the usual mountain, who explains that only the body of the usual spotless virgin can cause the metals to blend. Naturally, Kuan-Yo has just such a daughter, who promptly flings herself into the vat, crying “For thy sake, O father.” Presto: ding-dong. “The perfect life,” says a sarcastic Mary, “the perfect death, the graceful fall into the boiling metal. … Endlessly entombed, endlessly beloved, endlessly revered, the body turns to music, the perfection of the bell's tone repeats itself in the receptive and ecstatic air.” And yet, not believing a word of Hearn, what she does in this aurora of a memoir is turn herself into a bell. “Ecclesiastical language is full of names for vessels,” she tells us: “chalice, ciborium, monstrance, pyx; there must be containers to enclose, keep safe, keep intact, keep protected from the world's contamination the sacred matter.” The world contaminated her only father. Too late to protect him, Mary's bell will ring his vespers.

Because the David Gordon who wrote poems to his daughter—from whom she learned “the sovereignty of the mind and the imagination,” after whom she named her son—was also the David Gordon who, in the twenties, edited a semi-porn girlie magazine called Hot Dog; and, in the late thirties and early forties, wrote anti-Semitic articles for Catholic International and the Jesuit weekly America; and, in the early fifties, wrote speeches for Joe McCarthy. Even his biography of the poet Paul Claudel, written a decade after the terrible news of the death camps, was actually a diatribe against André Gide, Modernism and “the infection of the Jews”: “The Jew Proust. The Jew Bergson. The Jew Masoch …” More remarkably, David Gordon had himself been born a Jew, only converting to Roman Catholicism in 1937, just in time to side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War and to complain in America about the international brigades of “Jewish soldiers” gone to Spain “to help murder nuns in Lincoln's name.”

So he died on her, this changeling, and his secrets with him: “I am in the dark room, waiting to be allowed to see him, to wave to him. I have always been. I have always been waiting. I have always known that if they let me see him, he will never die. I know what the sight of me means to him. Everything.” And what the death of him meant to her was a fall into her mother's Irish-Sicilian world of grudge and grievance; of polio, alcoholism and Alzheimer's; of My Little Margie on Friday night television and something more mysterious on the bedroom wall: “a picture made of slats. You turned your head one way: it was the Scourging at the Pillar. Another turn of the head produced Jesus Crowned with Thorns. If you looked absolutely straight ahead, you saw the Agony in the Garden”—the world, in other words, of Mary Gordon's novels, of Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels and The Other Side.

Though she wouldn't discover Hot Dog, pressed between pages of the Catholic Encyclopedia, until she was 12, which bared breasts, provocative bums and Little Girtie Ginger sex jokes she flushed immediately down a toilet, it was not as if half-orphaned Mary, afraid of mayonnaise and gristle, hadn't known she was partly Jewish. Her father told her his ancestors had been wealthy and cultivated French Jews; that his grandfather had been a rabbi; that his father owned a saloon. (He also told her, or so she thinks she remembers, that he was an only child; that he had gone to Harvard with Walter Lippmann, seen Oxford's dreamy spires in the era of Brideshead Revisited, consorted in Left Bank cafes with poets like Claudel and been blacklisted by the Anti-Defamation League of B‘nai B‘rith, which was why he couldn't hold a job driving a taxi or tending a bar.) In his absence, moreover, her mother's family had always been there to remind her, whenever she was reading, dreaming or otherwise difficult: “That's the Jew in you.”

The Jew in her? “For most of my life, I felt I had no right to claim Jewishness for myself because I hadn't suffered for it. … No one needed me to be a Jew. But what did I need?” A father, of course, who must have abandoned her because she hadn't been alert enough to love him more: “maybe he was not really dead but was missing or banished, a political exile, and I, by the right word or signal, would be able to recall him.” A writing father, from whom she inherited, like a recessive gene, a predisposition to semicolons and parallelisms, argumentative paragraphs that end in punchy accusations and “some dream of purity, or style. Some way of naming and distinguishing. Some taste for exclusion and embellishment. And a desire for a point of silence, emptiness, and rest.” A film noir father who “lived as a man drowning,” with his missing teeth, torn trousers, broken shoes: “The figure behind every story. The stranger on the road. The double, feared and prized, approaching from the distance.” Had he lived, this Shadow Man would have seen to it that his daughter went to college in Quebec, or Belgium, or Ireland, certainly not to godless Barnard, where she became the leftist-feminist and trained investigator who pursues him through these pages: the scholar, historian, literary critic, private eye and Magic Realist who looks for him in library catalogues, census reports, deed bins, immigration archives and other “caves of memory” in New York, New Haven, Providence and Cleveland, in photo albums, microfiche plates and dossiers marked “Loss,” “Fascism” and “Kafka.” The child Mary feared bicycles and seesaws and merry-go-rounds. The adult, a hedgehog and a fox, will go anywhere by any means to track her father down: “It's a less hopeless prospect for me to imagine that I can find him than to imagine that he can find me. I am, after all, the one who lost him. ‘She lost her father,’ I've often heard people say. ‘She lost her father when she was very young.’”

Bad enough that David “did other things in his life than love me.” It turns out he also lied a lot: “Facts nose their way into what I thought was the past like a dog sticking his nose under a lady's skirts. How I resent the insidious, relentless, somehow filthy nudging of these facts.” He had been born not in Lorain, Ohio, but in Vilna, Lithuania. His first name had been Israel, not David; his first language Yiddish, not English. Nor was he an only child; sisters stashed in nursing homes and mental hospitals, relatives of whom she had no inkling, possessed snap-shots of little Mary, lovingly inscribed. Rather than owning a saloon, his father had worked in a dry-goods store. Instead of going to Harvard with Walter Lippmann, David was a railroad clerk. Far from rolling Oxford lawns with Evelyn Waugh, or Left Banking with right-wingers, he never graduated from high school, never applied for a passport. He'd even been previously married, to a flapper, and a stepfather to her son. Mary being Mary, she is more jealous of Yiddish than she is of any stepson. Yiddish was an elsewhere her father could go to, leaving her behind without her even knowing it, as if “the legitimate daughter” were “too good” ever to meet “the love child”—this Other's discourse of shtetl and Ellis Island, of goose grease and cabbage leaves and steerage, of Chagall's dancing cows and dark men in fur hats “praying to a God who has no son or mother.”

And so an angry daughter in mourning, the cracked bell, must imagine her father's passage from turn-of-the-century Midwest outcast (“the tumult, the vilification and self-hatred, the immigrant's terror, the weak son's dread, the Eastern Jew's American abashment”) to the dandy, the autodidact and the convert who tried to pass by reading Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, by dropping names like Ovid and Dante, by pretending his “natural habitations” were the open spaces of Rome, the dappled woods of the Middle Ages, the majestic palaces of the Renaissance, hoping in the cramped rooms above the store “one day to awake without reproach.” Like a porcupine bristling with empathetic intelligence, every needle an optic nerve, Mary sees him flee his past into her future. She‘ll dream him up all over again, in an ecstatic trance, by meditation and incantation on such objects as his pink shirt, black comb, silver ring and a prayerbook with a lamb's paw; on such fragmentary texts as Father Coughlin and Father Feeney; on her “police artist” sketch of the face of his “stalker,” with H. L. Mencken's mouth, Ezra Pound's hair, Henry Roth's eyes and Bernard Berenson's skull. Because we know and she knows that the shadow will always follow and fall on the fugitive, this luminous exertion breaks the heart:

My father walks out of the meadow to the marble building. He is light with feverish joy but his forehead is cool. Words jump and dance but remain separate, do not swarm. Assisi. Provence. Languedoc. Toscana. Chartres. Words rise up, white and shining, images of iridescent ease, words that do not accuse but absorb accusation. No need to fear, no need to cringe or wait for the reproach. In the white silence rimmed with green or gold, the dream of Europe, swallowing loathsomeness and hatred, insult, terror, dread.

Until it starts again. The buzz and hiss. The torment. “Everything you do is wrong.”

This shadow fell as well on her, during The Children's Hour in the fifties, while her father was writing speeches for Joe McCarthy and loving Mary more than God. The political pathologizes the personal:

I hear as if in a dream or through thick fog … the news of the execution of the Rosenbergs. Mrs. Rosenberg in her boxy coat, her hat, her pocketbook, like anybody's mother. I am told she, too, is trying to kill me. She is a mother, but the deaths of children mean nothing to her. Even the death of her own children would mean nothing to her. She is a Communist. This is what Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn are protecting me from. But every time I see electric wires, a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top, or an electric power plant, sometimes even a water tower, anything sending something from one part of the official world into our private lives, I am afraid for Mrs. Rosenberg. For the electricity in her body. To save me? You don't need to do that to her, I want to tell everybody. It is impossible that people like me will be saved. We will eventually be found out, and we know very well that you will be the ones to do it. We don't know what we've done, but you know. Then we will join Mrs. Rosenberg. Then our bodies will be shot through with electricity. We will be shocked. (I have felt it when I touched the plug of the electric toaster.) We will be shocked to death.

We are reminded of other memoirs, variously apposite. Some Sartre, surely, for the precocious Baby Writer: a bratty Jean-Paul inventing in Words a childhood self appropriate to his speed-freak metaphysics, in the absence of his dead father, gleefully certain he's free of superego. Some Speak, Memory Nabokov, for sheer lyrical anti-Freudian stubbornness: who claimed, as a child in prelapsarian Russia, to have seen through the dining-room window his father levitate, a glorious midair sprawl in a wind-rippled white summer suit against the cobalt-blue noon sky, hoisted by happy peasants, prefiguring the vaulted ceiling, wax tapers, swimming lights, funeral lilies and open coffin. Maybe even Philip Roth, about whom Gordon has written so brilliantly, who came to understand Patrimony during his custodianship of his dying father: a shaving mug handed down by generations of Jewish immigrants; the excrement Philip had to clean up, as once he'd been cleaned up after as a baby; their mutual obsession with memory, never forgetting anything; a distinctive voice: “He taught me the vernacular. He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular's glaring limitations and all its durable force.”

Or, for a female point of view on excess, secrecy and dysfunction: Germaine Greer, who tells us in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You that her father Reg had lied his whole life to his wife and children about almost everything, from his ersatz South African origins to his phony war as a cipher clerk at an underground decoding machine in Malta, meaning there had been no excuse at all for his daughter's growing up in Melbourne in a house without music, books, flowers, cheese or love. To which, add Carolyn See, who speaks in Dreaming of a grandfather dying drunk in a snowdrift, a grandmother blowing her head off with a shotgun, a father who churns out hard-core porn under a life-sized snap of a naked Marilyn Monroe and a mother playing tag at night inside a high-voltage power station with a pint of vodka in her Bible; of knowing that it's Thanksgiving because Uncle Bob sets himself on fire, and that it's Easter because you're in Las Vegas, where the Risen Christ is a topless dancer on a skating rink, performing “Spice on Ice.”

But Gordon is sui generis, and so is her book: wounding, refulgent and redemptive. “The detective in love with her client,” she warns, “usually ends up murdering or murdered.” Besides, “We want the log of a voyage with a happy ending. The story we don't want to hear is the story of disintegration, diminishment, humiliation, loss. This is the America that we cannot imagine.” Nevertheless: “There is some residue. … You didn't get it from your accusers; it was neither pitiable nor the stuff of shame. Perhaps it was the voice of God. The God of singleness and silence. The font of pure, accepting love.” Insisting: “His name is not David, or Israel. It is My Father.” Finally: “This man owes me his life, and he will live forever.”

In the last astonishing pages of The Shadow Man, having exhumed her father, she reburies him, in an elsewhere of her own choosing, in a ceremony of her own devising, in a coffin strewn with the severed heads of roses. Her friends think she is crazy. Well, so was Joan of Arc. And Simone Weil. And Antigone. And Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century “Sybil of the Rhine,” who wrote poems, plays, histories and sacred songs, and refused to yield to local authorities the body of a radical buried in her convent graveyard.

Maybe she just loved him more than God.

Sara Maitland (review date 17 May 1996)

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SOURCE: “Final Payment,” in Commonweal, May 17, 1996, pp. 17-8.

[In the following review, Maitland offers negative assessment of The Shadow Man.]

Mary Gordon has a well established record as a novelist deeply shaped by, although rather at odds with, her Roman Catholicism. I admire her work, and particularly Final Payments. So I came to this autobiographical memoir with some enthusiasm, though also with some doubts, as I have difficulties with books in the confessional genre by novelists. However, even uneasy amalgams can be interesting, and I was interested.

I was also feeling indirectly involved. Gordon writes of the death of her father when she was seven as the most important event of her life. My brother died last year leaving two small children, the older of whom is just seven. My family has talked a great deal about how one supports the children in preserving useful memories of their father, so I was open to a deeper understanding of loss and the way death complicates memory, knowledge, anger, and love.

I have spelled my position out in more detail than I might normally do, because I want to be fair to Gordon, but I have to say that The Shadow Man is quite simply a bad book. Nearly forty years after he died Gordon set out “in search” of her lost father, and the book is a record of the search. It ends up being more about Gordon's sensitivities than a biography of another person, but she was laboring under a particular difficulty—everything that she found out is pretty nasty. Her father was a liar (in large and small), a pornographer, a Jewish anti-Semite, a crypto-Nazi, and a grossly irresponsible husband.

It must be hard to discover all that about one's beloved father; and it was made more difficult still for Gordon because at the same time she was turning her attention to the task, her mother was collapsing into Alzheimer's disease, unable to offer more domestic balancing memories to her daughter. But “hard” is not, from the reader's point of view, enough of an excuse. I hope that were I to start out on such a project and found what Gordon found, I would sensibly abandon it, or fictionalize it, or not publish it. Instead the whole thing seems to have rotted Gordon's writerly intelligence (which she certainly has). The book is not simply ill-conceived, it is badly structured, sloppily written, and deplorably self-indulgent.

The best example of these qualities is the bizarre stylistic flourishes that adorn the book: I cannot find a single page which is not littered with preposterous rhetorical questions. Here is Gordon on the subject of her father's false teeth:

But were the teeth his? Yes, of course, since he had bought them. Did he pay for them, or did my mother, or some anonymous benefactor with a taste for Orthodox Catholicism, literature with a fascist bite? But the teeth weren't his in that they didn't emanate from his body. They weren't flesh of his flesh as I was. So it is possible to say that I was his daughter but they were not his teeth. Then whose teeth were they?

This self-dramatizing quality might be justified in relation to her memories, but it continues into the period of her “search,” all of which is unfortunately written in the present tense—giving a gushing flow, but undercutting any self-critical possibility.

But I went to a place where I was not the only one \the public archives office] … who are all these people and how could I be one of them? What are they looking for? What is the evidence they need? Are they trying to find lost kin. … Or maybe someone with money, the money that can change their lives?

At the root of the book's failure is the fact that I simply cannot believe in the seven-year-old self whom Gordon remembers and describes—a seven-year-old whose beloved father has just died and who lies in bed and thinks

I had to allow for the possibility that I might be only an idea—but in the mind of whom? Or what? Not God certainly. I knew it wasn't God; at that moment God was only one more instance of failed language.

(I don't think so. And this from the creator of the young girl in The Company of Women—we know Gordon knows better.)

Because she does not give us a credible child it is increasingly hard to believe in the sincerity, or even emotional capability, of the grown woman who is now the narrator. This is a double shame because it also undermines the potentially most interesting part of the book, when she turns her attention from this maudlin drivel to an exploration of her mother, her mother's retreat into amnesia, and the struggle Gordon therefore has in establishing the possibility of exhuming her father and reburying him. It has become, regrettably, almost impossible to believe anything she says.

The difficulty is enhanced, I would have to add, by some most peculiar lapses of taste: name-dropping the fact that Toni Morrison recommended the hotel in which Gordon stayed in Lorain, or telling us that she gave her children French bread with their omelet the day of her father's reburial.

I think I feel a sincere pity for Gordon wrestling with what is obviously a devastating experience, but I feel as sorry for the reader having to read it in this form. At one point she exclaims

Am I one of those modern people who don't know the difference between the public and the private? One of those people on “Oprah” or “Geraldo,” one of those transsexual doctors or dominatrix twins who can't wait to tell their tales? Am I squandering my legacy by putting it out in the open, on the trail, where it can be consumed like Hansel and Gretel's crumbs, by passersby?

The answer is “Yes you are.”

William H. Pritchard (review date 26 May 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Cave of Memory,” in New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Pritchard offers tempered evaluation of The Shadow Man.]

Mary Gordon's first novel, Final Payments, begins with a funeral, that of the heroine's father, whom she has cared for through 11 years and a series of strokes. The daughter's subsequent rediscovery of life. which this first-person narrative engagingly traces, concludes with a sentence predictive of Ms. Gordon's subsequent career as a writer: “There was a great deal I wanted to say.”

Now, after three further novels, a collection of stories, three novellas and a book of essays, she has written a passionate and extravagant account of coming to terms with her own father, David Gordon, who died of a heart attack when she was 7 years old. Who and what David Gordon really was is the object of his daughter's search. She begins that search knowing or believing she knows, that he was a Jew whose earlier life involved a Midwestern boyhood, years at Harvard and in France, a certain amount of journalistic and literary production, a conversion to Roman Catholicism and marriage to her mother (herself a Catholic). But the “cave of memory” Ms. Gordon is about to enter turns out to be as she apply puts it, “a tourist trap.”

For the “facts” about David Gordon are, to say the least, misleading. In the course of her investigations—which consist in part of reading her father's works in libraries, checking his family's birth records, traveling to Lorain, Ohio, and engaging in countless conversations with those who may or may not have known him or known about him—she finds that her father was in fact born in Vilna, Lithuania, that his first name was Israel, that he was not an only child, that there was no Harvard and no Paris in his “undergraduate years” (he worked for the B & O railroad), that he edited a mildly pornographic “humor” magazine in the 1920's, that after his conversion he became stridently anti-Semitic and right-wing, admiring radio's Father Coughlin and Cambridge's Father Feeney, that he was married once before, back in Ohio.

In the book's preface, referring to her love for this “passionate man” who once assured her that he loved her more than God, Ms. Gordon admits that “my desire not to move from that place led to a kind of memorializing that amounted to entombment.” So the book is, figuratively and literally, about the disinterring of the father, and it concludes with his reburial in a different cemetery from the one where he had reposed with his Catholic in-laws.

It's nothing less than a matter of life and death, for the stakes are mortal ones. As suggested by her witty and serious play on the themes of entombment and memorializing, Ms. Gordon's success as a writer depends on how vividly and convincingly she can bring the dead to life. She uses the word “quest” to describe her attempts to get back in memory to the place she and her father once shared. That place turns out to be elusive, indeed delusive, but “quest” accurately describes her experience as both daughter and writer. As in fairy tales and ritual magic, there are obstacles to be surmounted, reverses to be endured. The right questions must be asked, the right (or the least wrong) moves made in order for the dead “shadow man” to yield up his lineaments, thereby removing a weight from the shoulders of his living daughter.

Ms. Gordon's narrative seeks to avoid the banalities of repetitive insistence by exploiting the lively paradoxes and incongruities of her situation. If the cliché has it that the living woman seeks to find the lost father, then the notion of losing must be examined. “I am my father's daughter. I am reading what he wrote as his daughter, desperate not to lose him because of the words he sent out to strangers, to the world. But how can I fail to lose him, reading what he wrote?”

At particular issue here are sentences the father published in the early 1940's about Jews, and looking at pages of his contributions to a journal called Catholic International she finds that “what he wrote, what I have made myself read, what I have waited so long to read properly, has taken away what I used to have, my joy in being with my father, with the man who took me to the city, who bought me books, wrote me poems.” Such are the ambiguous gifts of trying to bring the father into full consciousness by somehow explaining him: “I know it's blasphemy to invent an inner life for a father, whose inner life literally produced you.” Indeed, her identity as writer is in question since, she says, she is a writer because her father was one: “I write the way I do because of the way he wrote.”

The narrative is strongest and liveliest when the daughter is able to see herself in incongruous relation to institutions and objects that are not, as she is, obsessed with a single passion. Some of the best pages of The Shadow Man are about books, about the libraries where Ms. Gordon looks up her father's writings. In Columbia's Butler Library, “temple to high Protestantism,” where she has been coming for 27 years, she locates him in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and finds an essay on an English poet by this “Ohio Jew” later turned Catholic. At Brown University's Hay Library, “a small Federal-style mansion with portraits of founders on the wall,” she finds it absurd to be asking for the archives on Hot Dog, a magazine in which her father, under the name Jack Dinnsmore, wrote things like “Are Chorus Girls on the Square?” In Lorain, Ohio, her father's hometown after he came to America at the age of 6, she arrives in an ice storm and instead of concentrating on David Gordon's early education finds herself worrying about the fine leather coat she's brought along, exactly the wrong thing to wear in such weather. Meanwhile, her hotel caters to her uneasy heart only by serving “heart easy” pasta, a food slightly less than spiritually fulfilling.

But sometimes the atmosphere feels less enlivening than oppressively up close and personal. Ms. Gordon keeps raising the ante in this game for mortal stakes, and in what seems to me the least successful chapter (“Seeing Past the Evidence”) she goes about placing her father in a police lineup with herself as “police artist,” putting together his face from bits of Bernard Berenson, H. L. Mencken, Ezra Pound and Henry Roth. She tries, but fails, to “become” her father by impersonating him, telling him stories. “I cannot bear to be my father,” she concludes, and she worries about her own balance. “Can I keep my own brain, sound and white, not seething, not fevered?”

Maybe. But her sentences do something like seethe and are, if not fevered, to my taste rather overheated. About her attempt to provide a “face” for her father she writes: “It must be a face without features. A face of light and air. A flame. Perhaps it is the face of music. Of beauty beyond the search for beauty. A face both human and inhuman. A face of love beyond the end of love.” The sentence fragments—a general feature of the book's writing—are supposed to create an atmosphere of anguished sincerity. But eventually this reader's sympathies were with the father who, as she imagines him writing in torment, asks, “Why are you doing this to me?”

The book's final pages, in which Ms Gordon succeeds in having her father exhumed and reburied, are informed by a Shakespearean vision of herself as “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” and she declares, proudly, that no obstacle will stop her. Nor does one. Her friends think she's “crazy” but loyally gather round; her mother, disposed originally to look on the project as a “wacky” idea, finally says “I'm so proud of you. My one and only.” In the book's last paragraph, the heroine realizes “that I'm not sad at all. That I'm very happy.” It is all a bit like Jane Eyre: the first person “I” endures and overcomes all obstacles as the world comes round to meet its demands.

In her preface, “To the Reader,” Ms. Gordon's claim about her father is that “having lost him, once, twice, I will have him forever. He is always with me, always mine.” By the end of The Shadow Man, that reader has seen the thing come to pass and must testify, if with some mixed feelings, to the dominance of such absolute literary power.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 5 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “A Male Muse Lacking Only a Name,” in The New York Times, March 5, 1998, p. E12.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers unfavorable assessment of Spending.]

“Where are the male Muses?” asks Monica Szabo at the end of the slide show of her paintings that begins Mary Gordon's new novel, Spending: A Utopian Divertimento.

“Right here,” answers the man in the audience whom Monica chooses to call simply B in her account of the unusual love affair they are about to begin.

B is a feminist's fantasy come to life. A highly successful trader of commodities futures, he has bought four of Monica's paintings and fallen in love with her from afar. He believes her to be “a very, very good painter” who one day “might be great” if only she had the advantages of the great male artists of history.

“What do you think you need that would give you the optimum conditions for work?” he asks her.

“Space and time,” she answers.

So they undertake the experiment that B proposes: that he become her patron and muse in every possible sense of those words.

In her earlier novels, Final Payments, The Company of Women, Men and Angels and The Other Side, Ms. Gordon was preoccupied with self-sacrifice. Now in the character of Monica Szabo, she has created a woman who not only wants it all back but also thinks it her due because she is an artist and a superior being.

Of course, Monica has certain qualms about her arrangement with B. As the egalitarian-minded daughter of working-class parents (her father was a baker), she insists she is uncomfortable with money and privilege. Worse, since she and B have immediately become lovers, for her to take money from him puts her in the position of a prostitute, or a “sex worker,” as one of her twin daughters prefers to call it. And since B is sleeping with her anyway, shouldn't he also pose for her, as the lovers of the great male artists always did?

Yet thanks to a remarkable capacity for self-forgiveness, she manages to overcome these difficulties. Despite her supposed discomfort with luxury, she seems to know all about the best stores, restaurants, hotels and great cities in Europe. The pattern of her protests suggests that once she has aired her objections to accepting B's sexual attentions and money, she is free to do so to her heart's content. “I think the most important thing to say about why I did everything I did was that I always felt he liked me a great deal,” she explains somewhat lamely.

As for his posing for her: “Can I think about it?” he asks.

“Yes, but not too long,” she responds, only half teasing. “And you really need to bear in mind that you have a responsibility to do it. It's part of your bargain, remember. Think of all those women taking off their clothes for all those men. Think of all you have to make up for.”

“The way you put it is so subtle, so full of possibility. I suppose I have no choice.”

Despite Monica's excesses as a character, her story does draw the reader in after a hundred pages or so. Looking at B's sleeping, naked form, she conceives a series of paintings based on her perception that the deposed Christs of Renaissance art are not dead but postorgasmic. The resulting show wins her sales, fame, controversy and a second patron, who offers her still greater wealth and inspires her to further invention.

At the novel's high point, Monica goes on the “Charlie Rose Show” and defends her “Spent Men” series against a Roman Catholic critic who considers them blasphemous. “All I'm saying is that, as an artist, the way I look at what's before my eyes is partly determined by what other artists have seen before me,” she declares. “I don't understand why that's a mockery.”

But Monica wears on you after a while. Her assumptions of superiority and moral rationalizations become insufferable. Her concluding comparison of herself to a conquering emperor sounds megalomaniac, and the context in which she does this, namely during her preparations for a climactic celebratory party, recalls the far better written novel by Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway.” As for the sex she has with B: there is so much of it that you begin to feel exhausted on behalf of the characters. This may be the first novel I've ever read where you skim the sex scenes to find the talky parts.

Finally, you have to ask, is what happens to Monica all that it would take to produce the great painter she clearly thinks she has become, or would several generations of a restructured society be required to fulfill the conditions she implies are needed to create great female artists? Whatever the answer, the connection between her experience and her sudden flowering is hard to see. Given her self-assertiveness, she seems just as likely to have discovered herself without the attentions of B.

As for what her self-assertiveness does to the novel, one can't help noting her comments on a Vermeer show she visits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Despite her egalitarian belief that everyone should have equal access to Vermeer, she painfully accepts an invitation to see the exhibit before what she refers to as “the ordinary viewers” arrive.)

At the show, she is inspired by what she sees not because she wants to “paint like Vermeer in the technical sense.” She continues: “What I wanted was more an example of something I would have to call moral; that sense of his getting out of the way of his own vision, of not coming between the spectator and what the spectator wanted to see, the graciousness of a withdrawal so complete that there was space between the viewer and the image that made room for the whole world. I was thinking about how to bring silence into my paintings.”

Because of Monica's almost bullying presence in her story, there is no space for the spectator to see what really is happening. There is no silence for the reader to hear. Which is probably just as well, because without Monica's self-inflation, Spending might easily collapse into nothing.

Hilary Mantel (review date 8 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “For Art's Sake,” in New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1998, p. 5.

[In the following review, Mantel offers tempered assessment of Spending.]

Sex, art, money: that's what it's all about. So we learn in the neatly chiseled opening sentences of Mary Gordon's new novel. Add in death and we would have a ferocious quaternity to frame the action. But in Monica Szabo's world, death is the gracious suspension of breath that she finds in the works of the great masters of religious art. It is a death that is curiously lifelike, but she does not notice this until one or two life crises have come and gone.

Monica is a painter: middle-aged, well preserved, amicably divorced. She has twin children, age 20, both of them bright and capable girls, and she has a small but growing reputation. She is ambitious. No post-modern jokiness will do for her. She believes in her work, and she is scrupulous in placing a divide between herself and those with a thinner talent. They are not artists; let them keep galleries. The notion of the “Sunday painter” makes her squirm.

Day to day, Monica's need is for space and time. She has struggled hard to find “someplace to live that didn't look like Lee Harvey Oswald was brought up there.” Teaching eats into her working week, her New York studio is poorly lighted, her summer rental in Provincetown is cramped. What sort of a painter would she be if these irritations were removed? Along comes a man, like a genie out of a bottle, and offers to let her find out.

B, as she calls him, is unattached, sexually dynamic. He would like to be an artist, but isn't, and so he offers to be her muse. Unlike the traditional female muse, he is very rich. He is a futures trader. Monica doesn't know what this is and remains incurious until the late stages of the book (“He might have been an alchemist or a blacksmith for all the understanding I had of what he did”). On the night of their first meeting, she and B begin a passionate affair. He offers her enough money to quit teaching, to travel, to rent a new studio. Caviar and silk camisoles shall be hers, and first-class flights to Italy, and nights and mornings of orgasmic bliss.

Misgivings set in. Is she a whore? Call yourself a sex worker, suggests the less sympathetic of her daughters. Money is something Monica hates to deal with, even the thought of it makes her queasy. She has always put her work first. What is the relationship between desire and inspiration? Which impulse will win—early morning sex or the need to be out of bed and in the studio when the light is at its best?

The reader's misgivings are perhaps more profound that Monica's. If you are a painter, a writer or a musician, it may be that your struggle with daily life lends an importance and dignity to your work that it would lack if the struggle suddenly ended. When the external challenges are removed, you have to confront the inner ones. Is your work important? Perhaps only the effort to do it makes it seem so. What happens when the artist gets “the clean slate,” “the clear field”? The leisure to examine one's talent might result in the alarming conclusion that it is not so great after all. These difficulties are suggested, but Monica is not paralyzed by them. Instead, a major project overtakes her, the project that will be the making of her.

In “Sexual Personae,” Camille Paglia argues that Michelangelo's “Dying Slave” looks not so much moribund as post-orgasmic. It is, she says, a “pagan crucifixion.” Monica takes a further step, focusing on the figure of Christ deposed, Christ in that difficult interval between cross and burial. She studies the paintings of the great artists and notices the coy crossed ankles, the voluptuous gleam of light on ribs elegantly speared. She discerns an exhaustion that does not correspond to death so much as to post-coital languor. (If she had half an eye, she would ask herself whether it is in Pietà figures that Christ is most sexualized; but this would not fit the plot.) Monica begins a series of paintings called “Spent Men,” which will reinterpret masterpieces of Renaissance art. She decides to use her lover as a life model for the exhausted God.

For this piece of daring—personal and artistic—she is rewarded with a sell-out show. Gordon is articulate about Monica's passion for “painting vision,” about her efforts to find a place to stand and look at a tradition that is European and male. Monica succeeds in finding an idiom where her work will “include the relation of the past—art and faith—to the present,” incorporating “the working female artist” who is “touched by the past but not shaped by it entirely. A light, indelible impression. Not a crushing hoof.”

And Gordon herself, in writing distinguished by its freshness and grace, demonstrates a devoted attention to the visual. “All I could think about,” Monica confesses at one point, “was green skies, skies with small, dingy, disengaged smoky clouds in them, like smudges underneath an eyelid. Mascara the morning after.”

The difficulty comes when Monica loses the thread of her argument with herself. She has already noted that painting Christ is not like, for instance, painting Achilles. Her Roman Catholic girlhood tells her that its resonances are different. Why, then, is she surprised when her show is picketed by a Catholic pressure group? The reader is not.

Indeed, the book seems to lose its ambition to surprise. Conflicts—internal and external—arise only to be waited away. The threat from the Catholic protesters simply dissolves, and though Monica has to go on talk shows and otherwise debase herself, her reputation is only enhanced. B loses his money, but gets some more, and it doesn't matter anyway because by then Monica is rich in her own right and has decided she likes him and will help him out.

Monica's spiky personality entertains the reader, and Gordon uncovers in her layers and layers of ambivalence. But Monica's guilts as woman, as mother, are the routine ones, and don't go deep. Gordon's snappy wit keeps the reader interested (“Try and Relax is a three-word oxymoron”), yet the book is slowed to a crawl by its heroine's need for introspection. After the one-third mark, we should know Monica for ourselves, but every shift in her psyche is monitored, made explicit. The reader is given little credit for having paid attention.

Mary Gordon is an honest and perceptive writer. She shows these virtues in her dealings with the reader, but then she turns them into vices. She seems unwilling to take a short route to any conclusion that involves human beings and the way they behave. This endows her narrative with calmness, realism and grace. It takes away, though, the conflict and drive that should power it.

Monica feels bad, then good, then bad again. The cycle will stop just when the author chooses. We are being manipulated, after all. There are times, early in the story, when Monica is refreshingly unlikable, and Gordon is good at describing how the self-abnegating nature of creative art can look to family and lovers like plain old selfishness. But she admires her heroine too much.

Despite the variety of prettily written sex scenes, the novel's end is an anti-climax. It is as if, for example, in a Faustian pact story, the devil took the bond sealed in blood and lost it through a hole in his pocket. There is no interest, and ultimately no life, in a narrator who—as artist, feminist, lover—is born to win. Gordon has subtitled her book “A Utopian Divertimento.” The point is taken; this is not real life, this is not how real life proceeds, this is a fairy tale. But we end with lip-smacking naturalism over pubic hair and pasta. An early indication of irony does not protect the novel from its final coziness.

Robert H. Bell (review date 10 April 1998)

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SOURCE: “All Expenses Paid,” in Commonweal, April 10, 1998, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Bell offers positive evaluation of Spending.]

Mary Gordon's new novel is immensely engaging fun, a delightful romp by an author distinguished for narratives of rigorous self-denial, harrowing disillusionment, and painful self-discovery. If anyone deserves a holiday from conscience and an interlude with the pleasure principle, it's the writer of Final Payments, The Company of Women, and the recent memoir, The Shadow Man. As its subtitle suggests, Spending locates us in the land of make-believe, what if, and once-upon-a-time.

Gordon's premise is delicious: what if a fifty-year-old painter, divorced mother of twin girls, were offered patronage, and much more, all her heart desires, by a wealthy, sexy, adoring benefactor? Thus “B” presents himself, irresistibly, to the dedicated, talented Monica Szabo, our narrator and heroine. Monica knows very clearly what she wants and rather less clearly what she is, an incurable narcissist. Floating into intimacy with B, she thinks, “You can't possibly lose. He's watching you and you're watching yourself. And you know there's nothing you can do that he won't like. Your body weighs nothing. It would be quite easy to fly up, and float away. He would watch you, flying up, floating away, not at all surprised because the whole time he'd thought you were miraculous.” Spending is “The Unbelievable Lightness of Being.”

Gordon magically releases Monica from the restrictions of reality and cleverly reverses conventional patterns. Instead of being the objectified object of the male gaze, Monica stars in her own show. She is the maker, he is the model. What she creates is, like Monica herself, outrageous and irresistible, a series of postcoital variations on classic versions of Christ's passion (her theory being that the Christs of the old masters represented le petit mort). Hence the title of her series, “Spent Men,” and the punning title of Gordon's novel.

B views Monica as miraculous. “I think you're a very, very good painter. I think one day you might be great.” “When you were younger did you think you looked like Hedy Lamarr?” When she momentarily worries that she could afford to lose ten pounds, doting B responds, “My God, you don't know much, for all you think you know. Don't you know the incredible power of what you've got there? Of the appeal of that endless responsiveness, and all its variety?” Even his gesture, “you don't know much,” yields to a paean of praise. To hear such stuff is a major motive to fall in love.

But B, love-struck, blind to cellulite and sag, not to mention his beloved's vanity and egocentricity, isn't the only character who feels Monica's “incredible power” and “appeal.” A former student presents Monica with a bouquet. Her sister Helena says to B, “We have something else in common. We both think my sister's a great painter.” Viewing Monica's new series, “Spent Men,” Monica's agent exclaims, “It's the most exciting work I've seen in a long time. I knew the idea was great but the execution is a triumph.” Monica has an insatiable need for praise, an urgent, incessant throb. She's got it half-right when she comments, “Maybe I have trouble accepting praise because my hunger for it is so boundless.” She's closer to the artist's dirty little secret when she admits what she'd really like to hear: “Every other living painter's work is shit. Yours, only yours, is gold.”

I found Monica a fully realized, compelling, intriguing figure. She describes the process of painting and works of art with vivid, passionate fervor. She's very nearly as persuasive depicting really good sex as she is describing Vermeer. And she is persistently smart and funny: “Nothing marks the death of desire like the moment when you find yourself thinking that the ex-wife had a point.” Another of Monica's endearing qualities is a tenderness for humankind, including males.

A vibrant novel, Spending has limited ambitions and effects, and it eventually runs out of steam. Monica's benefactor B is insubstantial and flagrantly fantastic: a rock of support, a geyser of praise, a faithful, worshipful lover, amusing but never threatening, a Wall Street futures trader who wittily quotes T. S. Eliot, and who is ready, willing, and able to drop everything and serve Monica's purposes. Financing her project and modeling her subjects, he is her sugar daddy, spending lover, and savior. When his herniated disk requires Monica's ministration and some erotic accommodation, B is only temporarily grumpy and the problem just disappears. If only! So full of loving-kindness and devoted patience is B that he is an apt model of Christ.

Monica seems too abundantly endowed, the recipient of excessive authorial affection and regard, or perhaps an idealized, privileged surrogate for the author. (She's a wonderful synthesis of Lily Briscoe and Mrs. Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse). Monica is not only romantically and artistically enabled but blissfully freed from the exigencies of reality. Swimming naked, Monica thinks, “Movement is utterly easy; you're working against nothing, what you're in wants you to move in it, with it, it offers no resistance, only help.” Encountering no resistance enables floating and fantasy but limits fiction and life. Without more intractability—vulnerabilities, inconsistency, orneriness—there's inadequate conflict between what Yeats terms “the perfection of the life or of the work.” Spending romanticizes artistic experience without studying the costs of artistic commitment. Monica's adventures are amusing and entertaining but not richly dramatic. Still, if you're looking for an artful indulgence of appetite, and a joyous spring fling, Spending is your ticket. Soon, I predict, to be a major motion picture.

E. M. Broner (review date July 1998)

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SOURCE: “Pigment of the Imagination,” in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XV, Nos. 10-11, July, 1998, pp. 25-6.

[In the following review, Broner offers favorable assessment of Spending.]

Mary Gordon has always taken on strong enemies: the church, memory, family. She is not averse to taking on the big bad boys either. Reviewing Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Sonlast year in The Nation, she wondered how he “could have the audacity to do something there was no need to do … that no one particularly wanted, that he knew nothing about and that he wasn't well suited for.” Knocking out that kind of pugilistic male is no sweat for her.

She has created exactly the opposite in this book: a male supportive of the woman hero's work. Spending is a fairy tale with a Prince Charming (referred to as B, only named after he's earned it). Cinderella is Monica Szabo, smart-mouthed, a gifted artist and independent woman with too little time, too many jobs and inadequate studio space. Later there will be a fairy godmother who will save both prince and princess.

The title is clearly about money and sex, both to the point of exhaustion and total consumption. The American Heritage Dictionary defines spend as “To pass (time) … To throw away, waste, squander, to pay out or expend money,” and spent as “consumed; used up; expended.” But Gordon is too sophisticated and knowledgeable to confine herself to definition. Monica insists on defining herself, all the time, to everyone, herself, her twin daughters and her “Muse,” the patron. (To him: “I didn't have to tell him that at my age I'd had rather a lot of sex. … \S]ometimes I wanted work more than love.”)

Monica throws out a challenge at a show of her work: Where oh where is the male muse? There have always been female muses, servicing their lovers with sex and food, used as objects, as models. We have trained our daughters to be muses but not our sons. Suddenly a man—handsome and wealthy, it goes without saying—raises his hand. He will be the Muse. It will solve everything.

But from then on the conflicts are between independence and accepting a patron, between counting one's time as one's own to make art and repaying the Muse by making time for love. The demands Monica makes of B enlarge. Soon she finds she needs him not only as patron and lover but as model.

Watching B spent, after sex, Monica reflects:

\H]e was sitting like Jesus in Carpaccio's Meditation on Christ's Passion. That relaxed weight, the heaviness. The loss of regard. The position of the limbs, the hands and feet. … The face unexpressive. …

I began thinking about other dead Christs, Pontormo's, Mantegna's. … And suddenly, I had an idea. Suppose all those dead Christs weren't dead, just postorgasmic?

That is the beginning of her series of paintings, Spent Men, After the Masters. The idea is playful and outrageous: what can possibly happen next, the reader wonders? Because it's a fairy tale, of course the paintings are completed, the show is sold out, there are great reviews in the New York Times and Monica discomfits her opponent from the Catholic Defense League, both invited for a public sparring on the Charlie Rose Show.

Every scene is visual. Monica describes one of her works: there is a

kind of spacy gray green. And a shadow of a table. In the foreground, a man wearing only his underwear, a very beautiful pair of green and white striped silk boxer shorts. I had a wonderful time doing those shorts, the pearliness of the white, absorbing that dim light, and the green stripes, the green of an Anjou pear, but waxier. …

Only subtly do we learn that the model has an erection, “a lot of brush work, a swelling and then just the tenderest hint of pink.”

There is steamy and satisfying sex—on everything and everywhere: on beds, airplanes, movie theatres, on the Upper West Side, in a cottage on Cape Cod, in hotels in Washington, Milan and Rome. But in each place, there is also the satisfaction of looking for a long time at art—Vermeer in Washington at the National Gallery, or the Christs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in various museums in Italy where Monica's lover takes her for inspiration.

Everywhere the writer “paints” still lifes:

He laid the table on the deck with the yellow pottery. The table was cast-iron and glass, the chairs cast-iron. … He brought in royal blue place mats and napkins. The silver was Vienna Secessionist, I thought. There was coffee in a white pot, and a platter with slices of honeydew, cantaloupe and Persian melon arranged alternately.

One does not know which to enjoy more, the sexuality or the sensuality. Even the weather thrills:

It was 7:00, the twentieth of August. Two weeks before there wouldn't have been even a suggestion of dusk, but now there was and with it the slight anxiety of coming nightfall, or the end of one more precious summer day. The grass was damp and the air had a peppery smell.

Or the rare accuracy in the physicality of making of art:

My body felt used, worn out, fatigued, dirty, and yet overwrought. …

After working like that, I feel I have filth all over my hands, and at the same time I'm incandescent.

Monica is self-made, self-willed; she has always been responsible, moderate in her choices and independent. But now she changes from thrifty to spendthrift, gleefully going on spending sprees. In Milan she is offered clothing which “no living woman could possibly wear”:

Shoes made of glass and metal, skirts of feathers, jackets of acid green or kumquat leather. But then we saw the pearl gray camisole that turned us both on. He bought it for me; we didn't look at what it cost. He bought a belt. I bought a scarf, the color of blue hydrangeas.

They spend and spend, and suddenly there's no more. The Muse is not amused. And is doubly deprived of his power. What can possibly happen next? Only a reversal of fortune, a role change, will do.

Despite the fun, Spending is not a summer beach book—though it would certainly be a turn-on to read while being oiled on a beach towel. But it's too smart. (Monica says of B's ex-wife, “If Brillo could talk, this is what it would sound like.”) And it's too wise. Gordon can't help dishing out the metaphysics:

I've often thought that the problem of foolishness is more metaphysically vexing than the problem of evil. Evil is a hard dark point, or a hypnotizing vortex; it's humbling; you can learn something from it, if it doesn't destroy you. … But foolishness is an unworthy adversary; it just smothers you in its wet thickness.

Most of all, what carries this work above fantasy—“utopian,” as Gordon calls it, or “an entertainment,” as Mary Cantwell described it in Vogue, or even something megalomaniacal and Napoleonic, as the crusty, cranky critic said in the daily New York Times—is the truth of work, the knowledge of art. That's what keeps Gordon's mouthy, funny, prickly Monica always on earth.


Gordon, Mary


Gordon, Mary (Vol. 13)