Saturday, July 2, 2011

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

I am finally catching up on my reviews - I've been so behind lately because of health issues but now I'm finally getting there!

Unfinished Desires is a fictional account of an all girls Catholic school - Mt. Saint Gabriel's - in the early fifties. The school is located in a small Southern town that isn't exactly known for its tolerance of anything other then Protestantism. We are told the story by Sister Suzanne Ravenel, who is telling the story to us as she writes her memoirs in 2001 at the age of 85.  Sister Ravenel was a student there and she was also the headmistress of the school during the 1951-52 academic year. Sister Ravenel is haunted by what happened to her during that year, and, in particular, the actions of the small, freshman class.

I particularly loved the characters that Godwin introduces to us, in part because they are so vivid and in part because they embody the narrative device that was used so effectively by Godwin.  There is Sister Ravenel, who is plagued by her secrets and her memories and is unable to move forward, even though time has not stopped for her. There is also Chloe, a shy girl who is orphaned and able to attend the school because she comes from a well off family and is a legacy. There is also Maud - a controversial and elusive girl mature beyond her years because she has to deal with the ramifications of being from a broken home - one in which her father has remarried, but her mother is single and living alone with Maud. There is also Tildy, the assertive and entitled girl that seems to be the root of all the problems. My favorite character was Madeline - Tildy's sister - who was like a breath of fresh air. She was smart and called it like it was. Sister Kate Malloy and Cornelia round out the cast of characters. Kate Malloy is known for her giving nature and her ability to get her students (the ninth graders) to push themselves to the limit while Cornelia is petty and known for her waspish tongue.

Each perspective lends a new layer to things and new insights into how memory may often be difficult to wade through and get beyond. I also really enjoyed how Godwin seemed to be making a commentary on the culture of mean girls and how the acts of one, maybe two, can ruin someone's life. Godwin did a masterful job of keeping the story in control and not making it sappy or over the top.  She gave it so many layers. And it was wonderful!

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