The Company of Women
Since the rise and predominance of the art novel, the documentary aspect of fiction—regarded in the nineteenth century as a major strength of the genre—has figured little in critical discourse except among Marxists. Yet, stubbornly, the appeal of the documentary persists—and not only among unsophisticated readers. It is an impurity that cannot be strained out by the most finely textured filter of linguistically based criticism. Just as readers were once eager to be told what it is like to live in a coal mining town or to work in a grog shop in a Paris slum or to make one’s way up as a businessman in Boston, so we still yearn for the revelation of modes of existence that are relatively unfamiliar, even when they involve large numbers of people living in our midst.
Too often, of course, the fiction that in these days gratifies that yearning has no literary pretensions whatsoever, What is it like to have grown up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Queens, in a house that “had always been full of priests”? An exotic way of life? Hardly—except perhaps to the excessively secularized purveyors and consumers of “serious” literary culture. Yet I suspect that the careful. Yet I suspect that the careful, indeed loving, documentation of the mores of this world, arousing as it does the staring curiosity of the outsider and the pained or delighted recognition of the insider, had a good deal to do with the popular success of Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments.
Fortunately for her reputation, there was much more to the novel than that. Though imperfectly resolved, Final Payments is clearly the work of a gifted novelist, a writer whose stylistic attainments are on a level with her intelligence and insight. The story of the venturing into life of a “good Catholic girl” of thirty, who had devoted the previous eleven years to the unremitting care of her once formidable, then invalided, father, was in itself moving, and the moral perplexities she faced were handled with subtlety, humor, and compassion until the plot took a melodramatic turn that damaged the credibility of the last third of the book. Her new novel, The Company of Women, is likewise a fascinating document, likewise a work at once excellent and flawed. Though it is to some degree a reworking of the themes of the earlier novel, The Company of Women is, in its structure and scope, a very different sort of book.
The company referred to in the title consists of five middle-aged, sexually inactive Catholic women—two virgins, two widows, and the undivorced wife of a hopelessly insane man who had barely consummated his marriage before being institutionalized—permanently. Their status and occupations vary; the robust and wisecracking Charlotte works in an insurance office in Brooklyn; the delicate, impractical Elizabeth teaches school and reads Jane Austen; Clare, the only one with real money, manages a successful leather-goods business inherited from her father; Mary Rose, an usher …