Worlds of Possibility : THE REST OF LIFE: Three Novellas, <i> By Mary Gordon (Viking: $22; 257 pp.)</i>

<i> Ellen Akins is the author of "Home Movie," "Little Woman," "World Like a Knife" and "Public Life."</i>

“All this” is how a woman in “The Rest of Life” refers to what she’s telling us, then adds, “By ‘all this’ I guess I mean how I have shaped my life.” And this is very much what these three fine novellas are about: the shape of life, the place of a person in it, the continuity of a body and mind in time. Not stories in the traditional sense, they take the form of extended meditations. The first two, written in the first person, read like the journal entries of an ideal diarist, one who can count candor, insight, acute powers of observation and literary grace among her gifts.

In “Immaculate Man,” an unnamed woman reflects on her ongoing affair with Clement, a priest. Eschewing chronological order, which doesn’t hold the sort of sense she’s after, she tells us about the beginning and her fears about the end; she describes events, recounts conversations, and sketches in some of the past, trying with each thought and detail to capture the quality of this affair. She is the first woman Clement has ever been with, the first his anointed hands have ever touched intimately, and the unworldly innocence of his earthly passion is as troubling for her as it is gratifying. Middle-aged, the divorced mother of two, resigned to going unwanted in a world where youth and beauty set the terms for female sexuality, the narrator finds herself transformed, awakened in a new way to the conflicting urgencies of flesh and faith, by Clement’s desire for her.

Throughout she sounds subtle variations on the married themes of doubt and belief. Has her affair with Clement compromised the innocence that made it possible? By being the first, has she initiated a sequence, anticipated a second? And what does a priest’s belief, the foundation of his existence, have to do with her own bated secular sort--in the goodness of her children, for instance, or in the pleasures and the rigors of her senses?


Mary Gordon renders these reflections in a style that manages to be pristinely economical and profligate at the same time. What is said is dictated not by any narrative form but by the narrator’s need to find one of her own. With infinite possibilities to draw on, each narrative choice the woman makes defines her, and defines the place that she and Clement inhabit. In this manner, which in lesser hands could produce mere vagaries, every word becomes necessary.

The second narrator, like the first, neatly replays events and repeats details as a means of placing herself, again in relation to the man she loves. In this novella, “Living at Home,” the problem of placement in respect to people, things and one’s past becomes even more explicit. The narrator, oppressed in childhood by her mother’s profound attachment to the furnishings of her life, has developed an uneasy relationship to the objects of domestication--to, that is, the very notion of domestication. “I think I kept leaving men,” she says, “because I got so tired of the places where we lived together, where they lived so seriously, so steadfastly, sitting on the furniture, using the crockery and silverware as if it were eternal, as if they could rest because at least these things would never change.”

Now, however, she has found a man who has given her a new sense of place, whose body, as she puts it, finally calls forth her impulses “at once voracious and custodial,” her “plain wish to rest.”

A journalist of distant disasters, the man, Lauro, needs perhaps even more than the narrator not to stay in one place--and so, for once, she finds herself in the unlikely position of standing for certainty, for home. Lauro’s work and her own--she is a doctor serving autistic children--allow the narrator to explore in many oblique and direct ways the very idea of continuity in life. “To live a continuous life,” she says, “a person needs to be in relation to the world of objects.” And this, no easy thing for her, is virtually impossible for her patients, whose fears and difficulties she describes in an almost lyrical fashion, revealing as she does so the truly remarkable nature of what passes for ordinary, daily life.

The pathos of displacement, a state so natural to these children and so fully examined here in corporeal and philosophical terms, is also central to the last novella, which gives the book its title. Unlike the first two narrators, the woman who dominates this novella, which is narrated in the third person, actually has a story, but one that she has spent her entire life avoiding telling.

As a young girl in Turin, she was the lover of a 17-year-old poet, a tortured soul of questionable genius who decided they should kill themselves together. He died, but she changed her mind, and in the aftermath was shipped off to America in shame.


Now 78 and returning to Turin for the first time with her son, the woman is cast back upon her past, particularly this event that in some senses shaped her life and in others ended it. Sad as it sounds, this is the story of a woman who, from the instant of her young lover’s death, is exiled not just from her country and her father, but from some hopeful, happy version of herself--that girl with the instinct for life who, when death was held out to her as an opportunity for greatness, knew better and said no.

If life as she understood it came to an end so long age, what, then, is “the rest of life?” As the old woman confronts this question in a thousand ways, working and reworking the terms of her exile even as she is returning to the point of rupture, she might be mapping out the area where the first two novellas take place, the area where the first two narrators so uncertainly and yet so safely live. Theirs is a world of possibility we glimpse when the old woman recalls her son as a young boy dancing and singing on a stage, his gift suggesting life’s goodness: “Think of me and there can be a better life.”

This world of possibility is Mary Gordon’s gift as well, and in her precise and lovely prose, her crystalline attention to the details of human experience, her delicate rendering of the drama of consciousness, there is more than a suggestion of goodness.