Picks and Pans Review: The Other Side

updated 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mary Gordon

Sixty years have passed since Vincent McNamara promised his wife, Ellen, that she would die in her own bed and not among strangers. Now, after recovering from a severe accident, Vincent, 88, is coming back to his house in Queens, N.Y., and to an ailing and senile Ellen, 90. He doesn't want to do it, but over the course of Gordon's fine new novel, we come to understand that for Vincent, an honorable man, there really is no choice. In writing about Vincent and Ellen, who came to New York from Ireland in the early 1900s, and the three generations that follow, Gordon shows how the hopes and fears of one generation manifest themselves in the next, and how binding and often irksome are family and ethnic ties.

The very title, The Other Side, is apt, since it covers coming to America, the shifting alliances of family members, conflicted ethnic loyalties and, finally, the journey through life to death.

Gordon's fourth novel (the others are Final Payments, The Company of Women and Men and Angels) is an elegant and moving generational saga about urban Irish-Americans in the 20th century. "The Irish have only two talents, for getting drunk and for stepping on their own two feet," Ellen declares bitterly at one point. Her granddaughter Cam, a lawyer, tells her Jewish lover, "God, it must be a burden being part of a superior culture. It's kind of a relief coming from a bunch of third-raters or self-destructors. Flops." Such self-loathing is refuted by the very variety and complexity of the dozen or so characters Gordon has created. The book could have used a little trimming, especially at the end, but this is a quibble. The Other Side is a satisfying and emotionally rich novel. It will please Gordon's fans and win new ones. (Viking, $19.95)

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