Posts Tagged ‘Unfinished Desires’

Trust me. In spite of a terrible title that makes it sound like a tawdry bodice-ripper, Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin is a wonderful, layered novel of girls and women, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Also, adolescent longing, spiritual yearning, thwarted dreams and long memories. No wonder Godwin couldn’t come up with a more appealing title, although I’m leaning toward “The Reckoning of the Red Nun”  or “At Mount Saint Gabriel’s.” 

Mount Saint Gabriel’s is a Catholic girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains, and near the turn of this century, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, 85 and blind, is dictating a history of the school in a tape recorder at the behest of “old girls,” her former students. The nun was once a student, too, so there are her schooldays and friends to revisit, including her writing of “The Red Nun,” a play about the school’s founding.

More troubling, though, is how she will recall “the toxic year” of 1951-52, when Mother Malloy came to teach the ninth-grade class ruled over by Tildy Stratton and her chosen friends. Tildy is the niece of Ravenel’s best friend, who died young, leaving behind a twin sister (Tildy’s mom) who detests Ravenel. Tildy’s new best friend, orphaned Chloe, is the daughter of another “old girl” as well as a cousin.

Such family relationships complicate the already entangled plot and timelines. As in such previous novels as A Southern Family and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Godwin is guilty of trying to make too many angels dance on the head of a pin. The book sprawls and meanders; it is, as my friend Pre reported, “dense, dense, dense.”

But we agree that perseverance pays off as Tildy’s revival of “The Red Nun” brings revelation and reckoning to all involved. Yes, the male characters are shadows next to their fully rounded female counterparts, and are duly relegated to supporting roles. Sisterhood, in all its forms, remains the focus in this rewarding tale.

I am not Catholic, nor did I ever go to boarding school. But Godwin’s fine, nuanced writing and sense of place, combined with my own memories of summer camp and college, made me feel like an “old girl” pondering her revisionist history of Mount Saint Gabriel’s.

Open Book: I borrowed Unfinished Desires (Random House) from the library and returned it on time.

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