Random House, 2009, $26
Acclaimed Woodstock author Gail Godwin’s entertaining novel Unfinished Desires draws upon her own youthful experiences at an all-girls secondary school in North Carolina and reprises several of her favored literary themes, including Southern gentility, intergenerational female dynamics, and religious confinement. It’s a juicy page-turner, with Godwin’s signature strong character development and stylistically inventive narration directing and sustaining its plot.
We first meet octogenarian Mother Suzanne Ravenel, nearly blind and isolated in a suburban-Boston retirement home in 2001. Between prayerful ruminations and restorative strolls, she tape-records a memoir (denoted by a font deviating from the main) of Mount St. Gabriel’s, an all-girls school in the Appalachian Mountains where she spent more than 50 years, rising from scholarship boarder (class of ’34) to imperious headmistress. The tone of her recordings slowly evolves over the course of Unfinished Desires—from the staid history of her Order, St. Scholastica, to intimate epistles addressed to a former student and dubbed “confessional cassettes.” Intrigues harkening back to her halcyon student years at St. Gabriel’s thus resurface, their resonances ever-deepening as the novel unfolds.
Recollections rewind and fast forward foremost around the “toxic” year 1951, when “poisonous elements convened as the class of ’55…came under her charge.” This “hot spot” (as Godwin has described her own inspirations) triggers frequently nonlinear, unresolved associations that Mother Ravenel harbors in relation to principal students in that ninth-grade class, notably daughters of her own onetime classmates from St. Gabriel’s. Within these psychic replays, rival characters emerge; in between, competing storylines boomerang through space and time, rendered through protean gestures including excerpts from student papers and “talks” featuring God.
Twenty years after the opening of St. Gabriel’s, Suzanne (destined to remain until its closing) is president of her freshman class, and her closest friend Antonia Tilden vice-president. Suzanne writes a play, “The Red Nun,” which honors founders of the school and its Order, which she and Antonia plan to join together at the end of their senior year. Cementing their religious vow, they create a secret society, which includes Antonia’s twin sister Cornelia, who ultimately clashes with Suzanne. By 1951, a new flock of freshmen girls descends on the campus, poised to replicate their elders’ mistakes. Another fresh face, their beautiful young teacher Mother Molloy, models studied restraint. Weak in constitution but strong in faith, the younger nun serves as an inverse foil to physically vigorous yet haughty Mother Ravenel.
Cornelia’s daughter, the vivacious and undisputed class leader Tildy Stratton, rejects her grade-school attachment to brainy Maud Norton, befriending recently orphaned yet brilliantly artistic Chloe Starnes in her stead. Chloe’s caretaker-uncle, the gentlemanly Henry Vick, serves as the sole leading man in Unfinished Desires, his romantically tragic past a reprieve from the novel’s layered female entanglements. Uncle Vick’s tempering masculinity is enhanced by his interactions with Tildy’s charmingly coolheaded older sister Madeline. Recently expelled from St. Gabriel’s, the unorthodox Madeline meanwhile seeks a covert mentor in Mother Molloy, each admiring the other’s sensibilities and graciousness.
Spot-on depictions of country traditions and period fashion likewise recommend Godwin’s 13th novel. For instance, at “The Swag,” the Stratton family hunting cabin, children “blacken and blister” campfire marshmallows as a sickle moon rises on the eastern horizon. Elsewhere, Madeline dons “her father’s raccoon cap atop a silk scarf loosely draped about her shoulders, Arab keffiyeh-style, to conceal her rag curlers for the club’s Christmas dance.” But it’s the central characters’ varied nondisclosures that compel this satisfying tale of near ruin and renewal of friendship, in which Godwin demonstrates how in concealing we ultimately reveal ourselves.
Gail Godwin will read from Unfinished Desires at Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, on January 9 at 3pm.