The nun’s story

Saga of three students and buried secrets in a Catholic girls school

Gail Godwin’s novel involves an elderly nun’s memoir and the recounting of a eventful school year in the ’50s. Gail Godwin’s novel involves an elderly nun’s memoir and the recounting of a eventful school year in the ’50s. (Beth Bliss)
By Valerie Miner
Globe Correspondent / January 24, 2010

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Gail Godwin’s 13th novel, “Unfinished Desires,’’ is a large, roomy story of love, loss, fidelity, secrets, rivalry, and faith in the lives of a charming, flawed troupe of characters. Godwin masterfully evokes a Catholic girlhood in the 20th century through the lens of Mount St. Gabriel’s, a girls school in the North Carolina mountains. You smell the incense, taste the host sticking to the roof of your mouth, hear the haunting Latin hymns, and recall a time when the world seemed more simply divided - between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Friendship, snobbery, passion, and ambition complicate the practice of religion by students and nuns alike. Godwin covers a lot of history - describing the school’s founder, Mother Elizabeth Wallingford, 1863-1930, as well as the lives of septuagenarian alumnae in 2008. Her narrative is primarily divided between a chronicle of the eventful 1951-1952 school year and the 2001 memoir being written by 85-year-old Mother Suzanne Ravenel.

Mount St. Gabriel’s is a refuge to the young Suzanne Ravenel, escaping an unloving Savannah home. At the age of 16, she precipitously enters the convent. Since then, she has been a dedicated, if conflicted, servant of God, her students, and her order. Godwin’s three other characters are freshmen Tildy Stratton, Maud Norton, and Chloe Starnes. “Unfinished Desires’’ is an album overflowing with snapshots - some with contradictory captions - documenting the lives of Catholic girls and women.

Suzanne Ravenel is a dynamo. Since student days, she’s been vigorous, brilliant, and driven. “Why did it act as a stimulant when someone admitted to having less of something than you did. Perhaps because God made us to be competitive.’’

For most of the story she hides from a secret indiscretion. During the pivotal year, 1951-1952, naïve Tildy Stratton threatens to reveal the secret. Tildy is awed and exasperated by single-minded Mother Ravenel, a 36-year-old school director with the commanding presence of a 70-year-old cardinal.

“Unfinished Desires’’ abounds with Catholic allusions: the Angelus, Compline, rosaries, confession, rustling habits, constant fund-raising. Mother Ravenel believes God speaks directly to her. Chloe takes directions from her recently deceased mother, a kind of Guardian Angel. In these North Carolina mountains, Papists are an alien breed, and faculty work hard to protect the girls and maintain the school’s high academic reputation. “Tildy seldom set foot in Protestant churches, but each time she was obliged to do so she thanked her lucky stars she was Catholic. Everything was so dour and colorless and kept down in the Protestant Churches. There were no statues or candles, no sanctuary lamp, no vestments, no Latin, no incense, no rituals - in other words, no mystery; no theater.’’

If anything defines young Tildy, it’s theatricality. The second daughter of a liberal, wealthy family whose father works, socializes, and drinks and whose mother is a successful photographer, Tildy is both spoiled and ingenious. Mother Ravenel makes an “inspired’’ invitation to the brilliant, dyslexic girl - to direct a revival of the traditional school play. The production creates more complications than anyone could have imagined.

Mount St. Gabriel’s girls are not sheltered from worldly problems. Alcoholism plagues several families. Racism, homophobia, and class bias are rife. Chloe and Maud are brought up by single mothers. When Chloe’s widowed mother, Agnes, remarries, she and her daughter become victims of abuse. One day Agnes is found dead, her head cracked open on a radiator.

Meanwhile Maud’s divorced mother is dating an oily traveling salesman. Maud is the highest achiever in class. As a Protestant who lives in her grandmother’s modest boarding house, Maud is painfully conscious of her social separation from her privileged classmates. This affords some detachment from trivial social dramas. Although for years she was Tildy’s best friend, Maud returns to school one autumn to find Tildy has taken Chloe under her wide wing span.

Chloe is a thoughtful, reserved girl, and a talented painter. Tildy flatters the shy Chloe with her ebullient friendship, and soon they’re caught up working together on the school play. Neither of them understands the significance of Tildy’s revision of the traditional drama.

Gail Godwin attended St. Genevieve’s of the Pines in the North Carolina mountains. She lived in a house with her divorced mother and grandmother. Like Maud, she moved away just before 10th grade. At the end of “Unfinished Desires,’’ Godwin cites the books of several nuns. She carefully notes that all her characters are imaginary.

While most fictions emerge from some seed of conscious or unconscious experience, stories that closely parallel life, such as May Sarton’s “The Magnificent Spinster,’’ often lack the vitality and consistency of fully imagined fiction. So, too, “Unfinished Desires’’ resonates more with faithful recording than with vivid invention. Much is missing. Where is the story of Suzanne’s adult life between the ages of 36 and 85? And why just a summing up of the 55 years of separation in the lives of Tildy, Maud, and Chloe?

Godwin impressively addresses the advantages and liabilities of cosseted life. She exposes the handicap of limited vision, both literally and metaphorically, as Mother Ravenel becomes blind in old age. She reveals the particular devotion nuns have for their sisters and students. Mother Ravenel’s struggles with pride make her exercise of humility remarkably moving. For readers brought up in any orthodox tradition, “Unfinished Desires’’ will be provocative and rewarding reading.

Valerie Miner, the author of “After Eden’’ and 12 other books, teaches at Stanford University.

by Gail Godwin
Random House, 396 pp., $26