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SPENDING by Mary Gordon

SPENDING

By Mary Gordon

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-83945-8
Publisher: Scribner

 What might be called a kind of feminist apostasy suffuses this often entertaining but ultimately disappointing fifth novel from the author of The Rest of Life (1993), among other fiction, and a recent memoir, The Shadow Man (1996). The first-person story is told (to an implied listener) by Monica Szabo, a 50-year-old painter, long divorced and an absentee mother to her two daughters, struggling to support her artistic vocation--until a wealthy commodities trader (whom she identifies as ``B''), a self-described ``intermittent voluptuary,'' offers to become her ``muse'' (i.e., patron). Monica and B embark on a productive and loving relationship that rekindles her sexual ardor (much of Spending reads like a 9ยด Weeks for intellectuals) and strengthens her resolve to paint subjects heretofore treated only by male artists. Specifically, using the willing B as her model, Monica gives form to her chance insight about traditional crucifixion images: ``Suppose all those dead Christs weren't dead, just postorgasmic?'' Sure enough, her exhibit entitled ``Spent Men'' offends the religious right and commands instant critical and public attention, and Monica becomes rich and famous--just as B loses his fortune, and their roles as rescuer and rescued are instantly reversed. Little else happens (though she does eventually reveal his first name: a neat, and rather subtle, joke) in an often discursive narrative that wavers between spiky satirical observation and annoyingly moony detailings of the pair's interminable sex play (there are entirely too many utterances like ``It was wonderful going out into the cold with my lips abraded from lovemaking and the salt of [an] unhealthy meal''). Oddly, Monica is much more believable as an artist than as lover or mother--but, alas, she's the only real person here. Supporting characters are frustratingly briefly sketched, and B is a walking (come to think of it, usually a prone) wish fulfillment. Still, (the wittily titled) Spending works well as social and cultural commentary, if not precisely as fiction. Not Gordon's best, but well worth reading. (Author tour)