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Saints and Sinners

The Company of Women By Mary Gordon Random House, $12,95

The only relief in a Gordon novel is her wonderful sense of humor: "She was incapable of deceit, not through any strength of character, but because she lacked the intellectual apparatus either to invent or sustain it."

YET GORDON'S STRENGTH, her clever wit, turns out to be a weakness, for she fails to discriminate between her targets. When all are subject to her barbs, it leaves her novels without a confident voice, a voice which isn't undermined. We sympathize with her heroines, we pity them, but we do not respect them.

In fact, there are no power figures whatsoever in her books. Without a note of authority, there can be no reversal, no redistributions of power, no drama. Gordon affects change and movement by elimination of characters, dying fathers, cast-off lovers.

But the absence of an authoritative voice can be explained. Gordon's concern with the theme of friendship leads naturally to this condition. Friendships are relations with shifting support, one woman depends on another and then vice versa. If relations are in flux we might not expect a simple weighty voice.

Felicitas lives among the saints. Her mother and friends are true believers who breathe the words of perfect faith, of forgiveness and absolution, ofrosaries and confessions, of Christian love and the salvation of souls. Felicitas grows impatient with this forced piousness, as she eventually moves away from the Church's rarefied atmosphere. But whether she believes or she doesn't. Felicitas cannot avoid considering the presence of God in the world. She can never fully escape.

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Gordon's women never fully return to the religion they relinquish. They remain what Santayana once called "Catholic atheists." They are torn, nonbelievers in a Christian world. They sacrifice, remain uncomfortably independent but not free. They are unsettled but satisfied in their place before the Absolute in the company of women.

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