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Mary Quite Contrary

In a Departure That Has Upset Critics, Novelist Mary Gordon Dropped the Catholic Trappings of Her Previous Work to Write About a Woman Who Has It All--and Lives to Enjoy It


The critics aren't at all sure how to handle this one. Since her debut 20 years ago with "Final Payments," Mary Gordon, patron saint of American Irish Catholic angst, has been hailed as one of this country's finest writers. In return, she has dutifully produced three more lyrical novels--"The Company of Women," "Men and Angels," "The Other Side," and countless essays and short stories, revelations all of the tyrannies of love and death, family and faith. Her last book, "The Shadow Man," was an unflinching evisceration of many of the delicate themes and shadings of her fiction--a powerful recounting of her search for the truth about her long dead father. Nobody does pain and paradox like Mary Gordon.

But now Gordon, 48, has gone and written a book about money and sex and eating and art, a book about (gasp) pleasure. "Spending: A Utopian Divertimento" (Scribner) follows the life of painter Monica Szabo after she acquires a patron, a man known only as B., who for reasons of his own is determined to provide her with money, time and, oh yeah, sex, lots of sex, so she can do her best work. A combination bodice-buster, economic inquiry and Williams-Sonoma catalog, the novel is a hedonistic romp that also carefully considers the nature of money and power, of gratitude and obligation.

No funeral scenes, no rampaging matriarch, no sexually repressed prelates, just a woman in her 50s painting outrageous pictures, having an outrageous affair, living an outrageous life and not even having the decency to die in the end. Naturally, some critics are concerned. The New York Times in particular does not approve of Monica's "remarkable capacity for self-forgiveness" or her "assumptions of superiority and moral rationalizations." Reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt did not fault the writing, just the character, whom he found "bullying" and "megalomaniac."

"I absolutely knew this would happen," says Gordon of the rare criticism of her work. "They want you to sing 'Melancholy Baby' one more time when they're just drunks in a bar, as far as I can tell. People are only comfortable with victim women. If a woman is claiming both work and pleasure, it's intolerable."

She isn't angry when she says this, and that is fortunate. For though she is a small woman, soft-featured and dark in a neat pantsuit, she has those unveiled Irish eyes that are not to be trifled with. Gray eyes, large and luminous even in the daylight, that do not look away. They are eyes fully capable of pinning some poor soul to the wall with dark anger or chilly disapproval. Or lightening a nearby heart with warmth and laughter. Fearless eyes, without guile, that widen now in simple explanation.

"This is not 19th century realism I'm attempting," she says. "I wanted to perform an experiment, I wanted to write comedy, a Shakespearean kind of comedy. It's a good luck story. It's about women, work and pleasure, about how you can have it all and wouldn't it be fun?"

Gordon has swung by Los Angeles as part of her book tour, and the powers that be have put her in a hotel right across from the Beverly Center. Fitting, in light of the new novel's meticulous attention to materialistic detail.

In fact, the main difference between "Spending" and her other novels is not the conspicuous consumption of sex, caviar and trips to Rome. The main difference is the author's kindness toward her main character. Gordon's characters, particularly her women characters, do not have an easy time of it. There is no indirect lighting in her novels, no softening of edges, no Vaselining of the camera's lens. The characters are flawed; often broken, sometimes terminally; always exposed. Like the stereotypical Irish matriarch, Gordon the writer brooks no excuses for even minor transgressions.

Yet Monica gets away with murder, figuratively at least. She is not, Gordon admits, "submitted to that harsh Irish lens," the one that cautions that life is a vale of tears to be endured as the admission price to the gates of heaven. Gordon allows Monica to have fun, even if it means acting like a brat sometimes; the book is written in the tones of an indulgent parent, which Gordon is. Verbally at least. She and her husband, Arthur Cash, have two children--Anna, 18, and David, 15--and when she talks about them, which is often, it is clear that those gray eyes, with all their intelligence and shrewdness, are above all a mother's eyes. It is also clear that the fictional Monica did not exactly appear out of nowhere.

"She has such a mouth!" Gordon says proudly of Anna, "but that's how I raised her. I had to be such a good girl; I wanted my daughter to have more possibility."

Anna, whom her mother describes as "the last living Marxist," found "Spending" a bit of a shock, not because of the blatant consumerism ("She is endlessly amused by the fact that I still consider myself a bohemian," says Gordon), but because of the sex.

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