‘Would I want to enclose myself in all that fabric for the rest of my life…’ – Unfinished Desires, by Gail Godwin

February 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm (Book review, books)

When I first came to work at the library in 1982 and  was still getting the hang, as it were, of contemporary fiction, my then- new colleagues urged me to read this:  Now, almost thirty years on, many of us still recall A Mother and Two Daughters with a special affection.

Until recently, I had not read anything by Godwin since Evensong (1999), which I loved. When I started seeing reviews of Unfinished Desires, though, I thought that perhaps this  was the time to revisit this author. Would this novel have that same hard-to-define magic that flowed so easily through Evensong and A Mother and Two Daughters?

I’m happy to report that for me at least, it did.

In Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin tells the story of Mount St. Gabriel’s, a Catholic school for girls located amid the serene beauty of western North Carolina. (This is a favorite setting for this author, who grew up in Asheville.) The action of the novel takes place primarily in the early 1950s. (There are occasional flash forwards to the present time.) The cast of characters is  fairly large, and we are introduced to them very quickly. Obviously Godwin needs all the key players in place early on for her drama to unfold with maximum effect. In the main, her strategy succeeds, but I found it somewhat confusing at the outset and could have used one of those handy lists of dramatis personae that are sometimes placed at the beginning of a novel.

Mother Suzanne Ravenel, head of Mount St. Gabriel’s, is a force to be reckoned with. In the year crucial to this story, Mother Malloy, a new teacher, comes to serve as a counterweight to Suzanne Ravenel’s dynamism. This recent arrival is a gentle woman whose faith, intellect, and magnanimity are all of equal depth. The students who figure prominently in this narrative are are Tildy Stratton, Chloe Starnes, and Maud Norton. Additional characters are related to these girls in various ways. One of my favorites was Henry Vick, Chloe’s architect uncle. Another was Madeline Stratton, Tildy’s big sister who attends the public high school in town.

Some of the characters in Unfinished Desires struggle to be good. But one has the feeling that for Madeline and Henry, it is not much of a struggle. They are  both great-souled human beings, whose flow of generosity towards friends and family is unforced and genuine. The same can be said of Mother Malloy.

Here, Godwin limns the character of Henry Vick:

‘He looked forward to his first sip of scotch in the evening, enjoyed playing through the Bach preludes and Chopin ballades he had worked up over the years, and was at his happiest in conversations that kindled some degree of enlightenment in both parties. He loved the Mass and felt himself replenished by God’s mystery each time he received the sacrament.

Henry Vick is a widower, having lost his young wife Antonia in a tragic accident. Antonia was Tildy’s aunt. Chloe has also suffered an untimely loss with the death of her mother Agnes, whose still unexplained demise haunts Chloe – haunts everybody, for that matter. Agnes was Henry Vick’s sister; at the time of her death she was married to Chloe’s stepfather Rex… It was a bit of a challenge, keeping all these interrelationships straight!

There’s not so much a single story line in Unfinished Desires as there is a swirling multiplicity of plots and subplots, as relationships change and allegiances shift. Underpinning all of it is a surprisingly fervent religiosity. It’s this quality that gives the novel an otherworldy feel. This small mountain town seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century.  I found this a refreshing sensation; it made me all the more eager to lose myself in the story.

This benign atmosphere makes the sporadic (and blessedly infrequent) incursion of violence all the more shocking, to wit: “Before Rex, Chloe hadn’t known that men struck women.” (I still recall how shocked I was to learn the same ugly truth from the 1966 film version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.)

The seriousness of the  school’s students and teachers encompasses their academic endeavors as well as their religious observance. One of my favorite parts of Unfinished Desires concerns Mother Malloy’s ardent efforts to bring Dickens’s David Copperfield to life for “her girls.”  With Maud Norton, she succeeds brilliantly:

‘To be “utterly without hope”! what secret agony in her soul corresponded  to this? What feelings of shame? what fears that all her learning would pass away from her, little by little? what had happened in her past, or could happen now, to make her plight match his? when everything in her life was going so well, when every school day brought her six hours of proximity with the superior Malloy, what chords were being struck here by this English boy in another century in poverty and despair?  And yet they were being struck, over  and over, with a pungent ache.

Ah, the mysterious and profound power of great literature! Maud has just made a discovery that will enrich her life for years to come.

The preoccupation with religion, ethical behavior, and matters of the spirit in general adds depth and richness to this narrative. At least, it did for this reader. One question I’ve been pondering is why the presence of similar elements in  Marilynne Robinson’s fiction served to irritate rather than enthrall – again, for this reader. Perhaps it has something to do with the tone adopted  by each writer? I’m really not sure. Again, the mysteries of literature…

I have by no means said all there is to say about this book. And I admit that it may not be a novel that will be to the taste of every reader.

The New York Times described Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder as “a big two-hearted river of a book.” The same, in my view, can be said of Unfinished Desires.

Gail Godwin

8 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    Roberta, thanks for sharing this. I had read about this book on someone else’s blog and put it on my list. You wrote such a detailed and beautiful review. I’ll look forward to this one.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      You’re most welcome, Kay. Thanks for reading the blog. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Gail Godwin’s lovely novel.

  2. Frances said,

    Unfinished Desires is my next book. It awaits me on my bedside table. I was completely enthralled by Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong. I have A Southern Family and Violet Clay to read soon, also. I am hoping that these titles live up to Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong.

    Have you read Evenings at Five? I will just say, I wept.

    I Highly recommend Gail Godwin’s work.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for this, Frances. I’ll put Evenings at Five on my reading list (whose current length we will forebear to mention!).

      • Frances said,

        It is a very short book, readable in one sitting. You will be deeply touched.
        It is about grief.

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – John McGahern The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters Love and Summer – Wm Trevor Unfinished Desires – Gail Godwin Heart of a Shepherd – Rosanne Parry […]

  4. Becca said,

    I just finished this one myself and loved it. Godwin is at her best I think when she explores individual spirituality. If you liked Evensong, read it’s “prequel,” Father Melancholy’s Daughter.

    Beautiful review, too 🙂

  5. Nan said,

    I believe her Evenings at Five to be one of the very best books I’ve ever read. I keep meaning to read more of her work. (and read it again – soon). This is the cover of the book I own:

    http://openlibrary.org/works/OL1865751W/Evenings_at_five

    And it fits perfectly with the words inside. Oh, what a book!

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