Picks and Pans Review: Men and Angels

updated 05/13/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 01:00AM

by Mary Gordon

The tension in this third novel by the author of Final Payments begins to build in the first few pages and grows, filling the reader with a terrible dread that something violent and unspeakable is going to happen to the characters. Art historian Anne Foster has a chance to write the definitive work on a female American painter who had a career that resembles that of the real artist Mary Cassatt. This means that her husband, a college professor, will go to France for a year without her and that she will have to find someone to look after their two children while she does her research in the city. Almost by accident she hires a young woman she doesn't like. The girl is a religious fanatic, lonely, fearful and psychotic. It is a tribute to Gordon that the reader cares enough for these fictional people to put up with long, inner monologues on the part of Anne and the crazy young woman, musings that deal endlessly with motherhood and the ways of children, of love and hatred. Gordon triumphs in making the painter come alive—through descriptions of her works and her letters, diaries and the memories of her daughter-in-law who, at 75, recalls especially the Paris of the '20s. Curiously neither men nor angels count for much in Men and Angels (the title comes from I Corinthians 13:1: "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"). But Gordon does delve deeply, thoughtfully, often brilliantly, into some of life's most fundamental concerns. (Random House, $16.95)

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