It’s only January, but if you plan on reading just one great novel in 2010, this might be it. Unfinished Desires is a big old-fashioned book about jealousy and passion at a Catholic girl’s school, written with best-selling author Gail Godwin’s trademark depth and humor. It goes down easy, but Godwin’s 13th novel is filled with penetrating observations on women’s friendships, family and faith; it may just surprise you with its profundity.
The novel opens with the elderly Mother Suzanne Ravenel, former headmistress of Mount St. Gabriel, who has been chosen by alumni to write a memoir and history of the school. Mount St. Gabriel, a Catholic school set in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina, was founded by a British nun whose personal concept of “holy daring” supported her through conversion to Catholicism, immigration to the United States and the opening of a Catholic school in a predominantly Protestant community. Ravenel attended Mount St. Gabriel as a boarding student in the 1920s and stayed on as teacher and headmistress until the school closed in 1990. Her memories flow freely, but she cannot get past the difficult year of 1952, when the actions of a single headstrong ninth grader resulted in several girls leaving the school and her own temporary leave of absence. This incident continues to haunt Ravenel with feelings of unresolved anger and shame.
The teenager at the center of the commotion is Tildy Stratton, an obstinate and precocious young woman. Tildy’s older sister, aunt and mother all attended Mount St. Gabriel, and Tildy is torn between forging her own path and following the course of those who went before her. Her best friends, early bloomer Maud Norton and Chloe Vick, haunted by the memory of her dead mother (also a Mount St. Gabriel alumna), both struggle to assert themselves against the conflicting wishes, dreams and desires of family and friends. All the girls hover at the mid-point between childhood and adulthood, aware of their womanly powers and burgeoning knowledge but reluctant to make full use of them.
Complex intergenerational relationships of blood, friendship and passion abound in this powerful novel. Best friends jockey for position, closeness threatens to spill over into physical intimacy and the power struggles between mothers and daughters, teachers and students seethe and swarm. Godwin’s characters are worthy of our outrage as well as our sympathy and understanding, and she never shies away from the messy or the complex.
Unfinished Desires is based on Godwin’s own experiences at a Catholic day school in North Carolina, but the wise, human story she tells reaches beyond the boundaries of region and religion, satisfying any reader looking for a good story.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.