Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review - Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

Here's the story from the book jacket: From Gail Godwin, three-time National Book Award finalist and acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Evensong and The Finishing School, comes a sweeping new novel of friendship, loyalty, rivalries, redemption, and memory.
It is the fall of 1951 at Mount St. Gabriel’s, an all-girls school tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. Tildy Stratton, the undisputed queen bee of her class, befriends Chloe Starnes, a new student recently orphaned by the untimely and mysterious death of her mother. Their friendship fills a void for both girls but also sets in motion a chain of events that will profoundly affect the course of many lives, including the girls’ young teacher and the school’s matriarch, Mother Suzanne Ravenel.
Fifty years on, the headmistress relives one pivotal night, trying to reconcile past and present, reaching back even further to her own senior year at the school, WHERE the roots of a tragedy are buried.
Unfinished Desires, a beloved author delivers a gorgeous new novel in which thwarted desires are passed on for generations–and captures the rare moment when a soul breaks free.  

My impression:  For some reason, I started this book back in early 2010, and just never finished it.  I can't find anything in my notes to explain why I abandoned it, but I'm glad I tried again.  This is a story that resonated with me.  I went to a private girls school from 9th grade through college, and the fictional  Mt. St. Gabriel's is eerily similar to the real life Mt. St. Agnes I attended.....down to the fact that they are both now closed and most of the nuns who survive are living in retirement facilities.  Fortunately, I don't remember anyone as controlling as Mother Ravenel, Godwin's fictional headmistress, but the adolescent angst, the rivalries and the atmosphere were evocative of the 1950's Catholicism we grew up with.

Godwin's storytelling is enchanting but long.  This is one of those books that could have been so much better if it had more editing.  It rambled, and even with her indicating the speaker and the time frame as she changed points of view, it still was jolting to have to rearrange perspectives so many times.  In doing so, there were parts of the story that seemed to be told repeatedly, and this repetition meant the book ran on for about 50 pages too many.  The characters are extremely well developed, and exquisitely portrayed in the audio by Kimberly Farr who does a masterful job distinguishing between speakers and accents.

With a robust cast of characters, and a sumptuous setting, it's too bad the story line couldn't have been more crisply drawn.  It was a struggle to finish this one the second time around.  I kept saying "Ok, ok, let's get on with it."  One of the characters - Tildy Stratton's mama - carried her emotional baggage so heavily that I wanted to shake her!  Her relationship with the headmistress, while central to the story, was entirely too drawn out and dwelt up.  One of those "get over it" narrations that really dragged the book down in my opinion.  I still enjoyed the story, but I suspect it was more because of the nostalgic walk down memory lane, rather than the emotion  ridden psychological drama it turned out to be.  Even the ending, although true to the title, left me empty.  I don't think this one was up to Godwin's earlier standard, but still worth the read.

Author: Gail Godwin
Publisher-Format: Random House Audio, 18 hr, 35 min
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Year of publication: 2010
Subject: relfections of life in a private Catholic girls school
Setting: southern US
Genre: fiction
Source: public library

1 comment:

  1. I find Godwin's books to be difficult to get into but then engrossing, well worth sticking with. And I agree there are sometimes pages that drag.

    The girls' school would appeal to me as well. I attended one near Alton, IL for my junior and senior years of high school. I dearly loved it, but that school is gone too and no alumnae association has ever been able to keep us together because we're spread all across the world.


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