'Unfinished Desires': Nuns and schoolgirls behaving badly
A review of "Unfinished Desires," Gail Godwin's tale of mean-spiritedness, bad mothering and revenge in a Catholic school for girls.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Gail Godwin
Random House, 416 pp., $26
Gail Godwin's writing is uneven; she has garnered three National Book Award nominations for "A Mother and Two Daughters," "Violet Clay" and "The Odd Woman," all engaging examinations of people in search of themselves. Her other novels veer between chick lit and depressive musings.
"Unfinished Desires" manages to include all of the above, revisiting Godwin's themes of religion explored, character revealed and secrets kept.
In 2001, at the request of alumnae, Mother Suzanne Ravenel tape-records a memoir of her 50 years at Mount Saint Gabriel's, a Catholic school for girls, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. The pivotal year in that span was 1951-52, when the entering freshman class was particularly difficult, spawning a situation that resulted in Mother Ravenel taking an enforced leave of absence. She finds it particularly difficult to talk about that year, so the narrative jumps back and forth between her reminiscences, actual events in real time and her own years as a student at Mount St. Gabriel's. The result is a confusing hodgepodge of names, events, some back story on the girls — and it all adds up to not very much.
As a freshman, Mother Ravenel wrote a play called "The Red Nun," based on a real-life event involving a young woman who died before she got to enter the convent. Her parents commissioned a memorial, a sculpture in white marble. When the marble came, it was red instead and the sculptor died, leaving the piece unfinished. It all became fair game for a play suitable for 14-year-olds to moon over.
The narrative then returns to 1952. Tildy Stratton, daughter of Mother Ravenel's best friend Antonia's twin sister, Cornelia, is directing the play and adding new material destined to embarrass Mother Ravenel, because Tildy knows stuff.
This turgid tale is an exercise in mean-spiritedness, revenge, bad mothering and girls who should be spending time thinking about boys and clothes instead.
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