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...
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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.
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...
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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.
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....
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