A FIRST NOVEL may show "promise" but the second must sustain that promise and build on it -- a daunting challenge for any writer and especially difficult for Mary Gordon. Her first novel Final Payments, was published in 1978 to extraordinary critical and commercial success. She became "a writer to watch." So here we are, watching, in fact reading The Company of Women to see where her talents will take us. Happily, her new novel is both a variation on the themes of Final Payments and a clear step forward, deepening and expanding our view of her astonishingly detailed, purposely circumscribed landscape.

The heroine of Final Payments, Isobel, began her life as an independent person, as a woman, at 30 on the death of her invalid father. The restrictions of sickness and strict Catholicism made the transition difficult -- even buying underwear was a milestone along the road to rejoining the world of her contemporaries. Isobel made errors and compounded them, but with the characteristic emotional strength of Gordon's women she survived. And not only survived but grew, and grew up.

At the center of The Company of Women is Felicitas, the only child among the five women of the company. Once again Gordon evokes Catholic childhood with its unquestioned rules, its rigidity and, paradoxically, the freedom its tight-knit security gives.The almost caricatured figure of Father Mulcahy, the drinking divine of final Payments, has deepened and changed beyond recognition into Father Cyprian, a harsh, self-deceiving Paracletist father, now a secular priest. The plot, which pales before the complexity of its collective protagonists, concerns Father Cyprian, the five women, their relationships with each other and with the growing child Felicitas. She is the emotional focus of all their lives. "She is our only hope" says the celibate Cyprian.

Every year the women, who first encountered Cyprian when he conducted retreats for working women, spend their summer vacation visiting him on his homestead in Orano, a small town in upstate New York. Later, when Felicitas enters Columbia University and is swept up in the personal and social upheavals of the '60s and finds herself pregnant, the whole group returns to Orano to support each other. They build homes and care for the aging Cyprian and the baby Linda. She in her turn becomes their only hope.

The women are triumphs of portraiture both as individuals and in their varied and beautifully drawn relationships, full of surprise, strength, hostility and love. They are condescended to by Cyprian as mere weak vessels and yet in the end they are his only hope and support when change confuses his faith and stern obedience begins to wear the face of pride. Charlotte, Felicitas' mother, noticed how he always characterized them, reduced them all to a sentence "as if he couldn't remember who was who without it. She [Charlotte] was the salt of the earth and Elizabeth was one of God's doves and Clare had a mind like a man's and Mary Rose was a ray of sunlight and Muriel was an extraordinary soul."

Clare, who has inherited and runs her father's fine leather goods business just off Madison Avenue, is the only one with money. She is pained by the ugliness and disregard of elegance that characterize Felicitas' rebellion, the sordid communal apartment, the thrift shop clothes, the untrained dogs, yet she will provide for both Cyprian and Felicitas. Mary Rose, an usher in a Manhattan cinema agonizes over how to handle movies condemned by the Catholic church, has a solid Jewish admirer in the person of Joe Seigel, the cinema manager.Elizabeth, the frightened passive widow, is saved from annihilation by Charlotte's blunt and practical kindness. Muriel is an outsider -- not a New Yorker but from faroff Worcester, Massachusetts -- liked by none, but accepted into the circle because of her jealous and obsessive devotion to Cyprian. The women survive the crises of Felicitas' defection and pregnancy, Cyprian's heart attack, Mary Rose's wedding to the faithful Joe, and will, it is clear, in some way absorb Felicitas' eventual marriage.

Mary Gordon has endowed these women with strong souls, souls that reflect her own intensely moral -- not moralistic -- vision. Both her novels are serious works of fiction, filled with insight, grace and wit. She is a profoundly feminist writer. Not for her liberated women or overt ideology -- she does not preach -- but simply because her women dominate center stage. They bear the whole thrust of her fiction. The fact that these women are the products of a rigid, beleaguered Catholic upbringing adds a curious dimension to their role in the spotlight. They are not born to lead; they don't take to it easily and are weakness itself at the hands of men, even the least worthy. Yet they hold on to their central role inspired by a morality wrought and tempered by experience.