Mary Gordon’s work can be placed in three literary traditions: the Catholic novel, the Irish American novel, and the feminist novel. Each of her novels exemplifies at least one, and sometimes more than one, of these genres, but Gordon is most often considered a Catholic novelist. Her first two books, Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women (1980), are the most explicitly Catholic of her work, dealing with the protagonists’ struggles to reconcile their own spirituality with the traditions and dictums of the church hierarchy. Her third book, Men and Angels (1985), can be classified as a religious but not specifically Catholic novel, as the protagonist struggles with her relationship to a fanatical fundamentalist Christian.
Most of Gordon’s work can also be seen in feminist terms. Both Final Payments and The Company of Women feature women not only questioning their relationship with the church hierarchy but also struggling against their dependence upon the strong male figures in their lives. In Men and Angels, the protagonist struggles to come to terms with the conflict between her career and her children, and The Other Side, while not directly confronting feminist issues, features several strong female characters.
Much of Gordon’s work can be placed squarely in the tradition of Irish American fiction, alongside the works of such writers as James T. Farrell, Jimmy Breslin, John O’Hara, John Gregory Dunne, and Edwin O’Connor. The Other Side, in particular, concentrates on the Irish component of the Irish Catholic experience in America. Gordon’s work conforms to critic James Liddy’s characterization of Irish American fiction as “a dramatic, easily accessible story in which men and women with divided loyalties and sensibilities work out their fate.” In a controversial 1988 article published in The New York Times Book Review, Gordon accounted for what she saw as a shortage of Irish American novelists by discussing the Irish traits of concealment, sexual puritanism, and fear of exposure, traits, she wrote, that contributed to this shortage. Many critics and writers, however, have disagreed with her assessment and have argued for the recognition of a rich tradition of Irish American literature.