Sometimes I like to reflect on novels when I am in the middle of reading them. This review is odd because it is about my thoughts as I progressed through the book. My conclusion is that she started out boldly but ended up saving her heroine. Bad!
I love Mary Gordon's tone in her novel, Spending. You will not hear her protagonists whining about injustices done to them. They are adults.
She is particularly good on the subject of the earnest types who long for truth and beauty but are not very talented or smart. Here is what she says of one such person in the first pages of this book:
I have a friend, an old friend from art school, who opened a gallery in Provincetown. In my opinion the last thing Provincetown needs is another art gallery...The idea of Louisa opening a gallery bored me to the point of vengeance...She's a terrible painter, but I admire a kind of energetic patience that you could say is her approach to life.
Yes. This is a devastating little character sketch. And her "friend" is the kind of person who determines the nature of the art world today, and that's why most art is mediocre. Yes, any great accomplishment takes persistence but persistence by itself when not harnessed to talent is a waste of time.
I'll add to this posting as I read further. The very voice of it is like something from my own mind.
More: Advancing into this amazing work, I now find that Gordon is exploring what happens to religion based art when belief is gone. Her protagonist, an artist, is brought up as a Catholic but has outgrown belief in its miracles. Still, she wonders about the power of Christ. Her original idea is to depict Christ descended from the cross not as dead but rather spent, as after orgasm. This audacious idea leads to the notion of the rise and fall and rise again of Christ as being a metaphor for arousal and satiation as men experience these things, which will always be a mystery to women. Is this the true and visible miracle upon which religions are based?
This is getting very heavy for what I thought would be a light read. Spending is a novel of ideas, primarily. There are plenty of sexual incidents in it, but they do not excite me, probably because her lover is an idea of a man, rather than a man.
More more: This book has several devastating quick sketches of women. Monica loves her agent and her sister and, uneasily, her daughters, but has serious reservations about her mother (an entertaining narcissist, but so is Monica). Her over-all tone on the subject of women (like the quote on her mediocre friend above) reminds me of Mary McCarthy in The Group and The Groves of Academe.
For McCarthy, feminism was mostly about Mary McCarthy. To get where she wanted to go she allied herself with men, because men were powerful. At the same time, she thought women were at their most foolish when they capitulated to men. She discovered that there was a place for women who were bright and interesting like her. It did not hurt McCarthy's cause that she was also beautiful and remained very good looking into old age, with her own distinctive style. As an intellectual, she did not have much competition in her day, since women of her generation were not on average as well educated as men and had less worldly experience.
McCarthy, like Gordon, was educated in Catholic schools, where she encountered nuns who taught her intellectual rigor. But unlike them, she took on the world. In order to do that then she had to put herself on a pedestal and declare herself special, an exception to the rules laid out for women. There is a hell of a lot more competition in her line these days! And the notion of their own specialness is something that many moderately gifted women have embraced whole-heartedly. I'm glad I have a realistic sense of my talents, which in some directions are exceedingly modest. Luckily, I lack the "energetic patience" to parley my unexceptional gifts into a lifetime of deluded activity!
Now, a little more than halfway through Gordon's book, I think an important theme is how women act in the world as compared to the way men do. What motivates a man to succeed as compared to a woman? Why are women usually regarded as enmeshed in relationships whereas men are seen as free-standing individuals? Her book, while having some features of popular literature, is actually a very demanding read.
Now I'm finished, and I have to categorize this one as "menopausal fantasy." She backed off, lost her nerve. I can't blame her; who wants to deal with the realities in the lives of aging women? So she has her dream guy, her fantasy older woman (non-threatening, natch) who gives her two million dollars, reconciliation with her daughters, room to live and work, and no real rivals. Lucky her.
Well, it was a good read and had a lot of amusing stuff in it. But it's not the masterpiece I thought it was turning into. It isn't Doris Lessing's The Summer Before the Dark, which is the best menopause book I've ever read.
I call this the Stephen Spielberg or Disney effect. They set up dire situations, but some rescuer always comes along and things end nicely. So we have our little adventures and transgressions, but in the end it all comes out the way we want it to.
My whole attitude is that the more realistic you are the happier you are. Fantasy worlds are nice, but that is what they are. Fantasy worlds.
So this is a fun fantasy read about a woman in menopause, although menopause is never mentioned.
Gordon knows what she's doing. The subtitle of the book is A Utopian Divertimento. And the last sentence reads, "I know you understand. If you didn't understand, there'd be no reason for me to have been talking to you all this time." This is meant as an entertainment, because no woman ever even has it as good as Monica, and Monica (or Moneyca) doesn't have it that good. Her life would drive me crazy.