Temporary Shelter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mary Gordon is the author of three well-received novels, FINAL PAYMENTS (1978), THE COMPANY OF WOMEN (1981), and MEN AND ANGELS (1985), each of which features as protagonist a woman coming to terms with the common human predicament and with the particular burdens of womankind. TEMPORARY SHELTER, her first collection of short fiction, gathers twenty stories, many of which originally appeared in magazines such as MADEMOISELLE, MS., REDBOOK, and WOMEN’S DAY; the earliest was first published in 1975.

While Gordon’s stories share the feminist concerns of her novels, they lack the reflective consciousness that has made her protagonists believable and appealing to many readers. The central characters in these stories, whether women or men, young or old, socially marginal or comfortably middle-class, are rendered in a flat, simplistic style that blurs the distinctions among them. They also share a mood of defeat. Typical in this respect are three linked stories, “Delia,” “Agnes,” and “Eileen,” that might be scraps from an abandoned novel about the Irish Catholic experience. It is a grim vision that they offer; the third story concludes with the central character, Nora, lying on her bed and foreseeing the routine that will be her life: “Each morning she would join the others on the train, and in the evening, tired out but not exhausted, and with no real prospects that could lead to pleasure, with the others she would make her way back home.”

Soon, such despair seems automatic, almost smugly embraced. Cramped, sour, humorless, unredeemed by any liveliness of style, these stories are as formulaic as the old-fashioned “women’s fiction” whose complacencies they subvert.