By Valerie Sayers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; C10
By Gail Godwin
Random House. 396 pp. $26
Gail Godwin has been accused of not being able to decide whether she's a popular or a literary writer, but she's certainly accrued enough bestsellers and literary honors to claim both identities. A reader discovering her novels for the first time might find them old-fashioned, with their intricate plots, complex character histories and formal -- sometimes ornate -- diction. Her newest, set mostly in the mid-20th-century South, certainly concerns itself with the manners of another era, but "Unfinished Desires" is also sharply self-aware, and in that sense it feels completely up-to-date.
The cadences of Godwin's characters are distinctly white Southern, which is to say unpredictable, syncopated, peppered with Latin and French, and class-conscious. Mother Ravenel, the headmistress of Mount St. Gabriel's, a Catholic girls' school in Mountain City (a thinly disguised Asheville, N.C.), discourages her students from using the word "class." "It's the quickest way in the world, I used to tell them, to let people know you don't have any."
Mother Ravenel is now an old woman, dictating the history of the school and sifting her memories of the girls who entered high school in 1951, a time when Jews were kept out of country clubs and African Americans drove the cars. (Early in my reading, I wondered if the promising chauffeur character, John, would ever step out of the shadows and was delighted 50 pages later when his employer said that John's voice "always puts me in the mind of 'The Shadow Knows.' ")
Despite the fierce anti-Catholicism of many Southerners, a school like Mount St. Gabriel's thrives because it offers a classical education and because it attracts money and power. Indeed, the ninth-graders taught by a beautiful new teacher from Boston, Mother Malloy, engage in power struggles worthy of royal courtiers. The girls' very presence at a tony boarding and day school grants them privilege, but they do not all come from money, and money does not shield them from troubles: Tildy, whose father has enough of an inheritance to spend his days driving around town with his black chauffeur, can barely read; Maud, whose father and Jewish stepmother struggle to be accepted in Palm Beach, lives with her mother and grandmother in their boardinghouse; Chloe, whose mother's recent death has left her a subdued orphan, threatens her stepfather when he tries to claim custody.
The girls' world is so dominated by females that female power is the only power that counts. Males are occasionally necessary for the plot to proceed, but they are on the whole agreeably painted with broad strokes, while the girls and the nuns who educate them are precisely and minutely rendered, outfit by hand-sewn outfit, habit by confining habit, narrative by individual narrative.
The novel's structure is odd and original, with multiple time frames and perspectives, and a large cast of characters -- difficult to sort out at first. Soon enough, though, clear patterns emerge. Mother Ravenel, the novel's most expert wielder of power, speaks her memories into a tape recorder, talks to other nuns and to God (who sometimes answers) and writes letters. Though she is the central reference point of the story, other characters take up the narrative perspective, many in turn slipping into prayer or reflection.
The world of Mount St. Gabriel's is small, but the novel feels sprawling, and, if these women's power struggles are often petty, they are also delicious. Appalling characters are rendered sympathetic as we learn their secrets; good characters are allowed a decency that's surprisingly bracing. Though a where-are-they-now wrap-up section at the end is too long and too summarized, "Unfinished Desires" is usually brisk and involving.
Godwin has often written with precision and sympathy about religion, especially the Episcopal Church. Here she renders a fictional order of Catholic nuns with authority and ease, making their spiritual and corporeal concerns convincing, funny, moving. The order's founder was a proponent of "holy daring" and "a woman's freedom in God," and those two powerful phrases accumulate a kind of poetic force as they are repeated throughout, until "Unfinished Desires" achieves its own sense of daring, freedom and grace.
Sayers, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of five novels.