Habits of the Heart

Beatty, Jack

Books: A LANGUAGE FOR COMPASSION MEM MB JUKELS Mary Gordon Random House, $16.95, 242 pp. Robert Phillips THOUGH I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become...

...She has much to say, and will become one of the voices of her generation...
...when Laura ludicrously wears her new hiking boots with her new dressy dress, thinking she will please Anne (who had given her both for distinctly disparate occasions...
...We soon see Anne as highly introspective (though perhaps not as intelligent as we are told she is), Laura as obsessively religious and determined to "save" Anne...
...and a priest "wore his unhappiness like a suit passed down from an older brother.'' There are heart-breaking scenes, especially when Anne's young daughter is laughed at in the school play...
...The chapters on Anne, are much longer than those on Laura, as if Gordon could not sustain the fierce self-hatred of Laura for long...
...If this doesn't sound like material for a gripping novel, you are in for a surprise...
...her son's hair "smel-led acrid, overripe, like stored grain...
...It is apparent that Mary Gordon is not just another talented young American novelist...
...Anne's comfortable life is described as' 'ornamented with good fortune, like a spray of diamonds on the dark hair of a woman...
...At one point in the novel it occurs to Anne that ''one couldn't simply say someone was a good parent: one had to be a good parent to someone...
...The author clearly is more comfortable writing about Anne...
...The one-to-one equation of Caroline's unloved son and the unloved Laura is too transparent...
...The subject of her monograph a fictitious American painter named Caroline Watson abandoned her own two-year-old son to take up the artist's life...
...But she has produced a touching novel on original and important themes...
...The novel's climax is anticlimactic, with an Epilogue that is unnecessary...
...One question Gordon explores in depth is whether or not art and family are mutually exclusive: to write her book, Anne Foster separates herself from her husband and hires someone to tend her children...
...Robert Phillips THOUGH I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal," the familiar source (I Corinthians 13:1) for the title of Mary Gordon's third novel clearly states this book's theme: Anne Foster, an academic wife and sometime art historian, lacks the capacity to love Laura Post, her incessantly smiling, drab mother's-helper...
...That ice which barely supports them is a metaphor for the precarious relationship between parent and child...
...and when Anne rescues her children from falling through thin ice...
...Anne and Caroline's lives are coun-terpointed throughout...
...Men and Angels \s written in dense, poetic prose...
...The book also is concerned with feminist themes, and the consolations of art and religion...
...As Gordon states late in the book...
...As Gordon shifts point-of-view, she also changes sentence structure and rhythm...
...Its first three-quarters is an intense and moving meditation on the nature and practice of motherhood, human love, and selfless devotion...
...The novel is presented from alternating points of view, first Anne's, then Laura's, with chunks of Caroline's letters and journals included as well...
...Gordon drives home her messages too often...
...there was so little you could do for them, even if you spent every moment with them, gave them every waking thought, there wasn't much that you could do...
...Commonweal: 312...
...So her father had been a (Continued on page 312) Mary Gordon's 'Men & Angels' (Continued from page 308) wonderful father to her, but with Beth he had always bungled...
...Gordon creates a convincing gallery of minor characters Laura's parents, Anne's parents and sister, Ed Corcoran and his wife, Ben and Jane...
...But the novel does have its faults...
...Further, Gordon could use a touch of humor to relieve the unrelenting claustrophobia and domesticity...

Vol. 112 • May 1985 • No. 10


 
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