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Gordon, Mary 1949–

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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

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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

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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 contrived turns. An ungainly but very likable first novel. (p. 94)

Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1978 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1978.

David Lodge

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Final Payments is a well-made, realistic novel of refined sensibility and moral scruple, informed by the values of orthodox Christianity—qualities one does not expect from the debut of a young American writer these days…. Anything more different from the school of Jong could hardly be imagined; but there is a perceptible affinity between Final Payments and, say, [Margaret Drabble's] The Needle's Eye. In both writers the primary source of interest and concern is the effort of an ironic and fastidious female sensibility to be good….

Isabel Moore is a subtle, articulate, self-conscious narrator. She is well aware of the twists and turns of her own psyche—that she may have arranged to be caught in flagrante delicto to punish her father for taking her virtue for granted, and then punished herself by sacrificing her youth to his illness…. Indeed, the long illness of her father has been for her a kind of time-warp, from which she emerges, more frightened than exhilarated, to face the fact that she can make for herself any life she chooses….

[The] novel, so firmly and freshly written at the outset, threatens to turn soft at the core, like a sleepy pear. The main trouble is the character of Hugh [Isabel's married lover], and it may be some measure of the author's inability to make anything of him that the heroine is peculiarly attracted by his back, so that he spends much of the novel with his face inscrutably averted from us.

Ms Gordon tries hard to compensate for this thinness of characterization by passages of discreetly erotic lyricism and anguished introspection by the heroine which only push the novel dangerously in the direction of superior women's magazine fiction. But it recovers its poise and power splendidly in the last eighty pages…. It says much for the power of Ms Gordon's writing that the reader feels a genuine sense of dismay at the spectacle of the heroine's physical and mental decline [after she renounces her lover and again reenters the Catholic ghetto of her youth], and a genuine sense of relief when she finally allows herself to be rescued from it.

In one sense Final Payments is a study in the power of traditional Catholicism over those who were indoctrinated in it at an impressionable age. The heroine's utter subservience to her father is obviously a microcosm of the power structure of the authoritarian, paternalistic pre-Conciliar Church; and her renunciation of her lover a desperate attempt to recover the assurance of personal salvation that she enjoyed as a result of her self-mortifying service. In the end the heroine breaks the suffocating grip of the Catholic ghetto, and opts for a more open and humanistic ethic. Yet the novel is steeped in nostalgia for, as well as nausea at, that kind of Catholicism, and the undoubted distinction of its writing owes much to the high-cultural equivalent of the Catholic ghetto—the "Catholic novel" of Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, with its characteristic fondness for aphorisms that are subversive of liberal, materialistic assumptions. "I was angry at myself", says the heroine at one point, "for making the equation, my father's equation, the Church's equation, between suffering and value", but the equation seems stronger than her anger, and ultimately impervious to it….

I have emphasized the Catholic theme because it interests me particularly, but Final Payments is a rich, thoughtful, stylishly-written novel that should have a more than parochial appeal. The progress of its author will be worth watching.

David Lodge, "The Arms of the Church," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 1, 1978, p. 965.

Bruce Allen

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Mary Gordon's much-praised Final Payments may be the best American feminist novel yet, though its thematic emphases are skillfully concealed beneath its wry surface picturing of an Irish Catholic girl who "gives up her life" for her invalid father, nervously edges back into reality after his death, then chooses renunciation again (for "having put myself at the center of the universe")—in a drastic penitential act that is simply unbelievable in pure narrative terms (though it does deftly dramatize women's reluctance to claim all they're entitled to).

The overall shape of Gordon's story is itself an eloquent comment on the nature of woman's fate. The simple declarative style, with its emotion-charged repetitions, generates great intensity. And, not least of all, Gordon's spectacular verbal skill allows her heroine to express complex emotional and intellectual attitudes with great precision. Final Payments is, owing to the tactical error I have mentioned, not all it might have been—but is quite good enough to demonstrate that Mary Gordon is one of the most gifted writers of her generation. (p. 616)

Bruce Allen, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1978 by The University of the South), Fall, 1978.

Paul Ableman

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Final Payments is a work of casuistry concerned to examine the conflicting demands of morality, especially Catholic morality. Isabel Moore, the heroine, blunders about, discharging ruin and agonizing about whether she is behaving well. It would be reassuring to feel that Mary Gordon knew she had created a Pharisaic monster and would dissociate herself from sympathy with Isabel's lethal spiritual struggles. This is not made clear and I was left with the feeling that perhaps Isabel was intended by her creator to represent Heroic Virtue or something of the kind….

[This] book invites judgement by moral, even more than by purely literary, criteria. (p. 23)

The characters in this book are static, in the sense that at the core of their being lies not a psychology but a morality.

They are almost 'humours'. Thus, although they interact they cannot change or evolve. Liz, the hard-bitten, but softhearted, girl-friend will grunt wise-cracks to the end of time. Judgement day will discover Margaret still reeking sourly and muttering envious complaint masked as devout solicitude. Isabel herself is essentially the idea of moral dilemma who will bounce indefinitely from socket to socket of the Catholic pin-ball machine with her shiny steel surface unscarred by earthly experience. The fundamental impulse behind Final Payments, adequately implied by the title, is eschatalogical rather than fictional.

This is matched by a curious feature of the writing: the image without real content. The offending lady at the bus terminal who 'laughed like an animal' is credited with patches in her hair 'the colour of egg yolks', 'eyes … the colour of a chemical', 'a face the colour of egg whites' and so on. Ignoring the obsessive egg comparisons, which might well haunt a childless woman, these similes seem to express a refusal to collaborate with mere matter and, although certain excellent passages reveal Mary Gordon's talent for description, generally speaking the novel is set in a kind of featureless limbo.

Readers will rightly suspect by now that I didn't much enjoy this book. It seemed to me to be theology posing as fiction, a hybrid form which compounds the tedium of the former with the imprecision of the latter to the advantage of neither. Nevertheless, a case, and even a strong one, can be made for the defence. Mary Gordon is a natural writer who has enough authority over language, imaginative strength and eye for character to furnish a splendid novel. The vignettes in which Isabel explores a variety of bewildered old folk lodged with sometimes negligent, sometimes caring hosts, struck me as excellent. There is no doubt that Final Payments is an auspicious debut … and little doubt that its author will speak to us again. My own hope is that next time her voice will be less that of the casuist than of the novelist. (p. 24)

Paul Ableman, "Last Things," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 13, 1979, pp. 23-4.

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