Three Tales of What Happens 'Afterward'

IF the marriage of lovers has provided the happy ending of many a comedy and the thwarting of love is the stuff of more than a few tragedies, much remains to be said about what happens after these peaks of human experience: the rest of life.

In three novellas assembled under that title, novelist Mary Gordon explores the uncertain, inconclusive world of what happens afterward. The first two stories look at women living with men they love. The last unfolds the story of a woman who has survived, if never quite recovered from, a youthful tragedy.

The narrator of "Immaculate Man" is a middle-aged social worker in a relationship with a priest. The two met while working at a shelter for battered women. Clement, the "immaculate man," has never been involved with a woman before. The narrator, although divorced and the mother of two grown children, has also never really experienced the transport of "being in love."

Although she does not share his religious beliefs, the narrator loves Clement for many of the qualities of faith, purity, and goodness associated with his vocation. She fears for the future of his faith and fears she may eventually lose him to some other woman - younger, more beautiful, more manipulative.

The narrator of "Living at Home" also lives in a state of suspense, not so much because of the circumstances of her marriage as because of an anxiety about the precariousness of "normal" life itself. She is a psychiatrist who works with autistic children. He is her fourth husband, an Italian journalist irresistably drawn to the world's hot-spots: famines, wars, coups, and revolutions. Their marriage has flaws, but it works because, as the narrator tells us, she wants it to work: "without him my life is l ess abundant and I do not want a less abundant life."

What does it mean to have a home, what does it take to live a life? The narrator's ponderings on the issues raised by her work with the children, and her husband's forays between a stable home and world chaos, lead her to marvel at how difficult it actually is to manage the daily details of ordinary life. Her reflections may well strike a responsive chord in the reader, but the novella as a whole is too unfocused and diffuse to be entirely successful.

The third - and most successful - novella, entitled "The Rest of Life," opens with a 78-year-old woman revisiting her native Italy in the company of her son and his fiancee. The trip is meant to be a treat, but neither of the young people has any inkling of how distressing it is for Paola Smaldone to return to the scene of her youthful shame. In 1928, as a 15-year-old girl, Paola and her 16-year-old lover Leo were involved in a suicide pact. Paola backed out at the last moment, choosing to live, but the rest of her life has been blighted by the shame she was made to feel. The dead boy's family reviled her for leading him astray (although the pact was actually his idea). Paola's own beloved father, a distinguished scientist and anti-Fascist, sent her off to relatives in America, never to set eyes on her again.

The rest of Paola's life has been lived in a state of suspended animation. Paola has never divulged her secret, and, as Gordon deftly reveals, her shame has something to do with the fact that she has never learned to speak and think for herself. In returning to the scene of her tragedy and shame, however, Paola finally finds words that speak for her.

Writing in the third person, but from Paola's viewpoint, Gordon achieves a considerable tour de force in this powerful and moving portrait of an elderly woman's long-delayed enlightenment.

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