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Saints and Sinners

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

By Michael Stein

MARY GORDON'S SECOND NOVEL, The Company of Women reads like a prayer. As in her first book. Final Payments, she writes about relentlessly serious Catholics who are raised to hate the world in order to love God. They are those who feel a constant duty sacrifice, and their religious abnegation becomes nearly masochistic.

Second novels never come easy. Especially when faced with the task of matching a masterful premiere. In Women, Gordon is more ambitious but less successful than Payments. She is just as precise, just as subtle, just as compassionate as before; her talents are unquestionable. But so are her weaknesses.

Final Payments had a simple and compelling story. Isabel Moore spends eleven years caring for a deeply religious and dying father. Her life during this time is inevitable and straightforward: "care of an invalid has this great virtue: one never has to wonder what there is to do. Even the tedium has its seduction: empty time has always been earned."

When her father dies, Isabel must invent an existence for herself and fill expanses of time never before regarded. "I would wake in the morning frightened, wondering how I would fill the hours until it was time to sleep again." We are left to watch a 30 year-old woman who has never functioned as a free adult grope for a normal life.

The Company of Women lacks such an urgent plot. If Final Payments is a beautifully told and moving story. Women is simply beautifully told. But the dearth of plot is retarding, as all movement is internal. There is little dialogue--used mostly to drop one-liners--and limited action. Nowhere is Gordon s plot problem clearer than in her inability to end Women. There, breaking from the style of rest of the book, she lets her characters reveal their inner feelings in their own words. Except for one figure, her style only serves as a distraction, an afterthought like a eulogy at a funeral.

In her two books. Gordon's characters have simple lives--lives structured by responsibilities, demands, duties and desires. They capture us because Gordon has a passion for the familiar and an original look to reveal it. Her eye catches the minutiae of life and twists them like needlepoint into a design of the ordinary.

Then again, these are stereotypical Catholic lives. They are lives filled with loneliness, exhaustion, and fear; fear of God, fear of loss, fear of sin. There is no horseplay in a Gordon novel, no exorbitant fantasy. There is no security for her characters, they do not enjoy life, all stability outside the Church is illusory. The Catholic formula prevails: passion brings scandal, scandal brings dishonor, dishonor brings withdrawal and isolated solace. Gordon's characters are unhappy, but never trapped, they simply have nowhere else to go. Isabel Moore nurses her father for eleven years and is never self-pitying. That she and her father live in a one-family house in Queens "strikes everyone in our decade a unusual, barbarous, cruel. To me, it was not only inevitable but natural... We were rare in our situation, but not unique. It could happen again."

Gordon structures her new book much like her first. Both begin with a woman raised in unusual and confining Catholic circumstances. In Women, Felicitate is surrounded by five unmarried adults, and in Payments Isabel devotes a decade to her father. In both, the lead woman is relieved of her chains in Payments by a death in the family, in Women by open rebellion. Felicitas, like Isabel, recognizes her lost youth and feels misplaced and uncomfortable in a world she is unfamiliar with. Both strike out, have unsuccessful but sexually educational affairs, and finally, both move back toward the spiritual womb.

Gordon divides The Company of Women into a triptych. Part I begins in 1963 with five middle-aged working women loyally flocking to the weekend retreat of Father Cyprian, an unsentimental, uncompromisingly pure priest who has settled in upstate New York. This is the company of women, secular nuns who kneel before their earthly Savior, whom they depend on for comfort, for succor, for sweetness, for confession. They are prisoners of the vision of God and the light of heaven. They are bound by a hunger for the sacred which Cyprian provides with effusion and fanatical authority.

One of the women, Charlotte, brings her 14 year-old daughter Felicitas, a girl of remarkable directness and independence, to the retreat each year. She is, as Father Cyprian reminds the women, "our only hope." One by one, they will all die, and only their child will remain.

BUT CYPRIAN, FELICITAS LATER NOTES, "trained me too well, trained me against the sentimental, the susceptibility of the heart." In Part II, a 20-year-old Felicitas has rejected the cold love of the spirit as a student at Barnard living out a later 1960s stereotype. She resides in an upper West Side apartment with two female health food faddists and her professor.

In the depiction of Robert, the radical lecturer in chukka boots, we see Gordon's severest weakness: her drawing of male figures. All her men are foils for her heroines. Incomplete and inconsequential, they serve for Felicitas and Isabel to learn another part of the unvirtuous secular and as love objects for those women who leave the Church. All Gordon's men are childish and petulant, unworthy of love and eventually discarded.

Her women's desire for the men seems too strong. None of the heterosexual relationships she describes are successful. The five females of A Company of Women are all unmarried, deserted or widowed. In Final Payments, the only fulfilling relationship is lesbian.

Gordon seems to see friendships as the most interesting and fruitful relations. In Payments. Isabel's relationships with two girlhood friends is critical, and female friendships are the central focus of Women. Father Cyprian's retreat participants are quite different sorts and brought together initially only through their association with him. Yet, a successful businesswoman shares her experience with and draws comfort from a simple housewife.

Gordon's heterosexual encounters are not only unsuccessful for their participants but for Gordon's writing. It is inevitable that these sections see Gordon forget her female characterizations. Psychologically perceptive and wonderfully introspective women suddenly become sprawling and cooing estrogen victims. Felicitas escapes the 60s and her lovers as a sinner and by Part III(1977) she is back in New York State in the company of women.

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.

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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