Thursday, May 17, 2012

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

There is a lot to absorb, even in the first few pages, of Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin. Set ultimately in 2007, it tells the story of several women whose lives first connect at Mount St. Gabriel's, a Catholic boarding school for Girls in the mountains of South Carolina.

The novel opens with some women who graduated from the school in the 1960's as they surround their beloved (and now nearly blind) headmistress, Mother Suzanne Ravenal The women have convinced Mother to write her memoir about the school which closed in 1972 and which was Mother's home for over sixty years.  This is the last we hear of those women, which confused me, as the story then twists around a series of unfortunate memories of 1952 that preclude Mother Ravenal's one-year leave of absence from the school. Memories which creep towards, then retreat from, this year of the so-called disaster.

When Mother Ravenal is finally able to bring herself to face the pain of that year, she comes to a kind of peace with herself and with a much earlier pain that, like some festering thorn under her skin, she'd never fully understood.

I grew up in the Catholic "school system." I attended a private Catholic high school for girls run by nuns, so I get that part of the story. Of course I was a teenager as well so I get that. And I get a passionate attraction to a best friend. I just don't think these elements were put together in the most efficient manner. Too many side trips and side characters to step over along the way.

The story is well-written and does a sensitive and insightful treatment of adolescence--its clumsiness, its passions and its cruelties--as well as the origins of these frailities. But it requires so much focus to keep tabs of the dozens of characters, the multiple points of views and the revolving time frames. It ends, not with Mother Ravenal but with the three ninth grade students who were at the eye of the storm that led to Mother's abrupt leave from the school. I can't say the ending totally satisfied me. Not that I think a novel necessarily must adhere to a single character's story but that it needs to leave me with a sense that the characters have all reached a point of closure with each other. Too many of them did not.

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