Mary Gordon presents three female narrators, telling their romantic secrets

August 15, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse


257 pages. $2 "One of the greatest treasures a novelist can have is a secret world, which he or she can open up to his or her reader," observed Mary Gordon in a recent book of essays, "Good Boys and Dead Girls." In "The Rest of Life: Three Novellas," Ms. Gordon explores the secret, amorous lives of three women -- two middle-aged and one elderly -- as they reflect on the present and past and wonder about the future.

The most beautiful and profound of these novellas is "Immaculate Man," narrated by the unnamed director of a New York shelter for abused women and divorced mother of two children. The narrator's lover is a Catholic priest, and Ms. Gordon juxtaposes her experience with her clients -- which has made her shrewed, pessimistic, and resourceful -- with her revelation of her lover's nature: "Clement misses enormous numbers of clues about the world, and yet he is a kind of genius about human suffering, for going to the heart of it, searching it out, like a heat-detecting missile."

Ms. Gordon creates an utterly convincing and sympathetic portrait of the priest, Clement Buckley, a man naive and wise, sensual and ascetic, and terribly vulnerable. She also brings to life the narrator's desire for Clement and her mingled joy and dread:

"When he was . . . so happy to be living the life he felt he'd missed, I was afraid for him. It seemed dangerous, like when my children were running too fast, playing too hard . . . he'd be so happy, then I could feel him wander someplace to heal himself, like a sick animal, as if it all had been too much."

In a sustained, meditative confession to the reader, the narrator seeks to comprehend her lover. Her understanding embraces the other great attachment of Clement's life, to Father Boniface Lally, the charismatic, worldly, homosexual priest who won Clement for the priesthood and has loved him chastely for nearly 30 years. Delicately, Ms. Gordon penetrates the conundrum of human passion in this poignant and erotic story.

The narrator of the second novella, "Living at Home," is also a nameless, middle-aged, divorced mother in a position of social responsibility -- a doctor who directs a school for autistic children in London. Her lover, Lauro, is an Italian journalist who has made a career of visiting the world's most volatile trouble spots.

This narrator is less successful than that of "Immaculate Man" at understanding her lover, because Lauro, unlike Clement, willfully projects different personae depending upon his audience. While the narrator constantly wonders about Lauro's authentic self, the true focus of this novella is on her character rather than his.

She has already left three husbands and dreads remaining at home as so many women do. An unmaternal mother, a homeowner but not a homemaker, she is cold, suspicious, unlikable; she discovers common bonds between herself and the autistic children she treats.

Of her relationship with Lauro, she says, "He ignores my inability to let go of a grievance because I'm afraid that without my grievances I'd disintegrate. I understand the children and their incomprehensible rituals, because in my refusal to forgive, in my repeating and repeating the details of an offense against me, I am comprehensible to myself."

As the narrator reviews her life, her thoughts move to death, to Lauro's dangerous career, his probable death and her fear of life without him.

In the title novella, Paola Smaldone is a widow in her late 70s. Accompanied by her son and his fiancee, she is returning to Turin, the city of her birth, after an absence of 63 years. Of Ms. Gordon's three protagonists, Paola is the most concealing. No one knows any longer her tragic secret, that she was the teen-aged lover of a young romantic poet, Leo, who pledged her to a suicide pact. She changed her mind, however, and fled just before Leo shot himself.

Yet part of her also died in the tower at Bardonecchia where Leo took his life. Blamed by his parents, shamed by her beloved father, she was sent to America, where she became self-effacing, passionless, sad. She married Joe Smaldone, an earthy, voluble Sicilian, the opposite of her dreamy poet. She bore him sons, and survived him.

Of the three novellas, this one offers the most conclusive ending, in which Paola squelches the impulse to confide in her son and, alone, revisits the scene of the crime that killed her youth. She is finally relieved of her guilt. Yet these characters never quite come to life as they do in the other novellas. They remain static and idealized, like figures in a frieze, glimpsed in profile. This novella resembles an allegory in which the symbolic meaning dominates the story.

In her earlier fiction -- four novels and a story collection -- Ms. Gordon established herself as an observant chronicler of Irish-American Catholic culture, a realist writer interested in the forces that shape character, and a moralist concerned with questions of conduct. This collection finds her moving further afield, to different cultures and cities, with varying results. "Immaculate Man" is the most heartfelt and memorable of these three fictions, but all are distinguished by her reflective and probing inquiries into the mysteries of love and death.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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