WILL SUCCESS spoil Gail Godwin? The answer, just to avoid any unnecessary suspense, is No.
It's the kind of question asked about John Irving after The World According to Garp, a question inevitably asked (not always, one suspects, with the greatest goodwill) when a "serious" writer has a popular success of the magnitude of Godwin's 1982 best seller A Mother and Two Daughters. But The Finishing School, Godwin's first full- length novel since that breakaway hit, can stand, quite happily, thank you, on the own two legs of its protagonist, a 40- year-old actress named Justin Stokes, who tells the story of her 14th summer.
In an important way, however, Justin was made possible by A Mother and Two Daughters, a comedy of manners which was a breakthrough novel for Godwin not merely in terms of its popularity. Although popularity in fiction only infrequently has anything to do with a novel's value as either literature or social document, part of that novel's appeal was to those of us who were tired of reading about women as victims and men as either cads or dolts. Godwin's earlier novels, particularly The Odd Woman and Violet Clay, portrayed intelligent, creative Southern women whose only hope for survival is to flee the South and its restrictive, idealized notions of womanhood and yet who can never quite escape those limiting definitions. In A Mother and Two Daughters, however, Nell, the mother, and Cate and Lydia, the daughters, are able to achieve a kind of balance, to find ways of fully becoming themselves that don't necessitate a rejection of everything in their heritage.
But Justin is already a step beyond those struggles toward identity and autonomy. A moderately successful, though not famous, actress, she seems to have applied herself to what Jung called "the task of personality" and to have accepted both her weaknesses and her strengths. Indeed, it is "because I'm more confident of my own powers now, not so afraid of losing myself, of being molded by other people's needs of me, of being overwhelmed by them," that she has the courage and desire to remember her friendship with Ursula DeVane and to confront her own role in the events that took place the summer she was 14.
What begins Justin's memory is a dream about Ursula, something which Justin knows is to be respected because dreams help us "to become acquainted with the dark side of what we are." And Ursula, Justin also knows, occurs in her dreams primarily "to stir things up" and to help her avoid "jellification," the refusal to change and keep moving. Because she is an actress, Justin is used to taking on other identities, and to learn what Ursula's memory has to teach her, she knows that the best way to do so is to become, in her mind, that 14-year-old Justin again.
That Justin is a girl in search of "something interesting enough to rescue me from my present life" in the village of Clove, New York, where she has come with her mother and younger brother Jem to live with her Aunt Mona and Cousin Becky. To Justin, New York seems like "enemy territory", a long way from her familiar, gracious childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She has just lost not only her home, but her father and the grandparents who raised her, and she is resentful of her mother's decision to move North. She needs not just something to rescue her, but some way of making sense of experience, finding out who she is not that everything familiar has disappeared, getting from childhood to adulthood. "If you hadn't materialized that summer," Justin says of Ursula, "I would have had to invent someone like you."
And Ursula is as dramatic and flamboyant as her name. Having studied drama in London and had a tragic love affair with a mysterious French cousin, she has come back in her middle age to her family's fast-decaying, rather eccentric house to devote herself to managing the career of her brother Julian, a failed concert pianist whom she is determined to make famous. Everything about her is exotic to Justin, from her earrings and shawls and gypsy skirts to her witty, sharp tongue to the novels by Proust that she reads. Recognizing Justin's precosity, Ursula perhaps sees something of herself there, and the two meet often throughout the summer at an old stone hut ("The Finishing School," Ursula calls it) where Ursula enthralls Justin with tales of her past and encourages her artistic aspirations.
We know from the beginning that something tragic happened to end this friendship and that it has taken Justin all these years to accept what was valuable in that experience and to acknowledge Ursula's influence, but we are kept in suspense until the novel's end. This is the best plotted novel Gail Godwin has written -- we keep reading in part because we want to know what's going to happen. But mostly we read because these are wonderfully sympathetic characters, right down to the most minor ones -- and by that I mean fully human, good and bad, lovable and irritating. Like life.
Novels are, after all, one of the ways we form our ideas about life. The Finishing School is not a social document or a "woman's novel." It is a beautifully written and entertaining and truthful and moving story about how one particular woman, one of the most engaging women to come along in some time, becomes who she does. We're lucky to be the ones to whom she tells the story.