Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“Immaculate Man,” the first of the three novellas in this collection, is a monologue by the unnamed female protagonist, a forty-eight-year-old social worker and divorced mother of two teenagers. Set in the early 1990’s in New York state, Manhattan, and Paris, the story focuses on the protagonist’s unexpected relationship with Father Clement [Frank] Buckley, the last active priest of the now-disbanded Paracletist order whose motherhouse has been turned into a battered women’s shelter that Buckley keeps in repair and directs. The protagonist meets the boyishly handsome forty-five-year-old priest when she is called in as a consultant for his diocese’s organization of the shelter. Clement, she observes, is a guileless man, both a poor judge of character and highly intuitive about human suffering.

An Illinois-born daughter of lackadaisical Congregationalists, the narrator initially has no guilt about their hidden relationship and little knowledge of what the Catholic church represents to priests of her and earlier generations. She is not a believer, but she assumes that worship should entail comprehensible rites that banish the dark mysteries to which Clement is devoted. Moreover, she equates the love of light with women’s sexuality and, conversely, the love of dark entrances into mystery with men’s desires to enter women’s bodies.

Their relationship begins three months after she starts commuting from Manhattan to the shelter, where, one day, she becomes ill. It is then, in a former cell decorated with “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” that they make love. The narrator feels that Clement has brought her back to faith, not in God, but in sexuality. Because he has never made love, touched a woman, or looked at pornography, she knows that his delight with her middle-aged body is rare. She also knows that he chose her when he found himself without a priestly order or work, and she understands why they will never marry. As the protagonist gradually learns from Father Boniface Lally, Clement’s Paracletist mentor and best friend, their marriage would strip Clement of everything he has loved since age thirteen. Moreover, Clement’s harshness with her son and daughter would rupture her and her children’s loving, healthily chaotic relationship. Even without marriage, however, she cannot imagine life without him. The elderly, seriously ill Boniface, who approves of their relationship, shares her feelings, and to her he confides his never-intimated sexual attraction to Clement. Her narration ends when she and Clement are in Paris, a romantic trip he insists upon paying for with the first money he has ever earned. He vows again that he will never leave her; she remains unsure.

“Living at Home,” the middle novella, is a first-person narration by an unnamed, British-born female protagonist who, since the mid-1980’s, has lived with Lauro, a fifty-seven-year-old, Italian-born foreign correspondent who is compulsively interested in Third World trouble spots and revolutions. The narrator is a respected, forty-five-year-old psychiatrist who directs a London school for autistic children. An only child of German Jewish parents who left...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Gordon’s four novels, these novellas employ a feminine perspective to address key issues in women’s (and girls’) lives: parents, surrogate parents, and children; careers; sexuality; autonomy; relationships; and aging. Certainly, Gordon has made a more thorough exposition of adult women’s sexuality in these novellas than she has in any of her novels; she also demonstrates a newfound freedom in describing women’s perceptions of male bodies, sexuality, and intercourse.

Her complex protagonists, somewhat akin to those in Margaret Drabble’s novels, address change—in bodies, minds, circumstances, relationships—in informative ways. Gordon’s contrasting examination of elderly women is particularly acute: For example, Lauro’s and the psychiatrist’s mothers in “Living at Home” have built their lives around refusals to change. By contrast, at the conclusion of the final novella, when the elderly Paola feels something hopeful move within her long-frozen spirit, she is able to celebrate and reapproach things, people, life.

Perhaps Gordon’s most important contribution in these novellas is her depiction of women who have come to terms with the multiplicities and partialities of contemporary lives and relationships. Gordon’s three female protagonists suggest that one’s ability to embrace permeable visions of what it means to be human is essential.