Mary Gordon Gordon, Mary (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Gordon, Mary 1949–

Gordon is an American novelist. Her first novel, Final Payments, chronicles a woman's attempt to escape the limits of a strict Catholic upbringing in her search for an independent self.

Maureen Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the natural instincts of a good narrator, Mary Gordon [in "Final Payments"] has elected to keep to the single-minded voice of her heroine, for Isabel Moore is obsessed with her own story…. One of the great strengths of [the novel] is the suspense that Mary Gordon builds into her plot. What will her bright, untried heroine find beyond Queens and the great dominant passion of her past? Isabel Moore is an extremely complex figure: she is physically attractive, vulnerable, sensuous, self-centered, smug—and, above all, intelligent. Unfortunately, her sojourn in the big world is a lot less interesting than in her bondage. In contrast to the Moores' house, a forceful presence in the novel, Isabel's apartment in a town up the Hudson, and her adventures, might be found in any conventional fiction about the contemporary working girl and her problems.

In a series of accidents that have none of the mystery of true novelistic coincidence, Isabel is awarded a job and an adulterous love affair. There is such a precipitous falling off in the stylish center of "Final Payments" that it is easy to see why Isabel does not quite believe in the events of her life. It is curious, too, that between the serial installments of Isabel's romance, local political life, and the sexual vagaries of her two girlhood friends, the author, as though to keep us apprised of her larger sympathies and real capabilities, has written a series of splendid vignettes. In "Final Payments" Isabel's job is to interview old people who are cared for by foster families: if there was to be any hope for the late-blooming heroine, I felt it must be in Isabel's imaginative reading of the aged—their dignity, madness, continuing love and hostility—rather than in her girlish response to her cardboard lover.

Isabel Moore's freedom is illusory: she must punish herself for her success and for her sexual fulfillment, even for her advantages of good looks and intelligence. This novel confronts the strain in American life that is darkly puritanic, a theme that has haunted our literature from Hawthorne on. In the denial of pleasure Isabel seeks salvation. Once again, the novel takes on force when she atones for her sins by caring for the hideous Margaret Casey, a woman crippled in body and spirit. 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. At its best, the novel has this sort of heightened drama and immediacy.

Along with her unmistakable talent Mary Gordon shows great respect for her craft: she cares about her diction, the rhythms of a sentence, the pacing of her paragraphs…. [Mary Gordon's cleverness] can be forced and somewhat parochial. She does not have anything like the easy wit and charm of Mary McCarthy about sex or politics; but what might prove infinitely more valuable to a writer of fiction is her fine fury with the false lessons of the past. We are made to care about Isabel Moore's arrested emotional development, her agony of guilt and pain—that is the genuine achievement of "Final Payments." (pp. 1, 32)

Maureen Howard, "Salvation in Queens," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1978, pp. 1, 32.

Amanda Heller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary Gordon is a young writer who obviously knows the territory she writes about, semi-urban neighborhoods of houses "cared for with a fierce, unimaginative pride," in which education, social life, and daily transactions all revolve around the parish. When she writes of Isabel's Catholic upbringing, she does so with a charming combination of affection and cynical wit. Isabel and her friends are appealing if rather narrow characters. Unfortunately, the plot of the book takes a series of excessively...

(The entire section is 1,976 words.)