UNFINISHED DESIRES by Gail Godwin

Book Quote:

“The problem of discerning mischief from good, thought Mother Malloy (closing her eyes against the flickering sunlight and leaning back against the Red Nun) was that, very often, the two grew together. Our Lord knew this: His parable of the wheat and the tares. If you ripped out the menacing weed prematurely, you risked killing the tiny seedlings of goodness struggling for life around its root.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (JAN 4, 2010)

Gail Godwin’s newest book, Unfinished Desires, is an intriguing character study of the female students and nuns who inhabit an outwardly idyllic Catholic girls’ school in North Carolina, Mount St. Garbriel’s. The novel takes place primarily in the 1950′s where the students jockey for power, prestige and friendship. The nuns, too, have their own histories and secrets. The Mother Superior at the School, Suzanne Ravenal is writing a history of the school. This part of the book takes place in 2001 when Sister Ravenal is in a retirement home for nuns. The book goes back and forth from the every-day school intrigues of the 1950′s to 2001 when Mother Ravenal is writing her school’s history.

All the characters in the novel have unfinished desires – - for God, friendship, love (sapphic and heterosexual), personal dreams and hopes. They aspire toward the good and the evil as is not uncommon with pubescent girls. What is interesting is that the current mixture of students is compared to the students who attended Mt. St. Gabriel’s when Suzanne Ravenel, now headmistress, was a student there herself. We are privy to the old histories, agendas, friendships, angers, loves and alliances that existed when Sister Ravenal was a student, many of which continue into the 1950′s. The same families continue to send their daughters to Mt. St. Gabriel’s generation after generation and alliances and enmities form.

There is a definite hierarchy of students, such that exists in virtually every school. Tildy Swinton considers herself the Queen Bee. The summer has just ended and a new semester is opening when the book begins. Tildy has decided that her best friend Maud is no longer right for her and so she decides to invite Chloe into her circle, excluding Maud. Chloe is fragile, a recent orphan and easily manipulated by Tildy. As the story opens we learn that Tildy’s mother, Cornelia, was an identical twin. Her sister died on her honeymoon. More interesting, perhaps, is that she was Suzanne Ravenel’s best friend at school. Suzanne was secretly in love with her and has been trying to atone for this love for years. There have been bad feelings between the Swintons and Sister Ravenal for many years because of many intrigues and complex issues. These feelings have been passed down the generations. The Swinton girls often feel singled out by Sister Ravenal for punishment.

Gail Godwin writes beautifully. We can imagine sitting in an idyllic pasture at Mt. St. Gabriel’s with a slight breeze blowing, reading an assignment and then stopping to worry about whether our latest acquaintance is the right one for us. One of the most interesting and important characters in this book is a new teacher, a young nun named Sister Malloy. She is pallid and beautiful – like a tragic pre-Raphaelite figure – with a real frailty about her. The students love her and she has a tender and empathic way with the girls. She, too, is dealing with unfinished desires. She had been in the middle of her graduate studies when she was moved to St. Gabriel’s in order to take over for another teacher who had been forced to leave the school due to an act of cruelty by the students.

There is a lot of information about Catholicism in this book and the practices of the Catholic church. I found this fascinating but it it not necessary to read all of it to get the gist of the book. If this aspect of the novel is not for the reader, it can be skipped over and the essence of the book will not be lost.

I am a fan of Ms. Godwin’s and love the depth of her characterizations, the perspicacity of her writing and the way she draws the reader in to the world of her novel. This is not an easy read as it takes on so many past and present histories and their ramifications. However, it is well worth the effort for it is beautiful in its manifestation. When it all comes together, it is perfect. Some parts, however, don’t come together as well as I’d hoped they would. There are no spoilers in this review and that makes it difficult for me to be more specific about aspects of this book. If you’re a Gail Godwin fan, go for it. If you’re not, and you love a book of depth and intrigue, this may well be a perfect novel for you.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 67 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House (January 5, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Gail Godwin
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 4, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, US South

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