Review: Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin

The beginning: Oddly gripping from the get-go! In Unfinished Desires (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), Old, blind Mother Ravenal, long-time headmistress at Mount St. Gabriel’s school, is asked by some adoring students to record her memories of her years as a nun, teacher, and headmistress. In alternating chapters are her very Catholic musings on the school’s history and principles, and the story of the high school class of ’55, whose behavior caused her to take a leave (enforced leave???) of absence. The important figures in the class are brash, clever, impetuous Tildy; her former partner-in-crime, Maud; and the new girl, quiet sensible Chloe. Maud and Tildy, in sixth grade, ring-led the merciless bullying of their teacher until she resigned. So we can only imagine what sort of torments they will be capable of by ninth grade.

The end (highlight blank spaces for spoilers): Y’all know I cannot resist finding out what nefarious torments Tildy and/or Maud and/or Chloe devised to make each other/the other girls in their school/their teachers/Mother Ravenal miserable. It turns out they tried to catch the conscience of the headmistress during a play they were putting on; and then one of the teachers died (seems like pre-existing condition?), and I guess after that Mother Ravenal had a leave of absence to, like, renew her conscience? Unclear.

I had to page through a lot of chatter and gossip from the grown-up versions of the characters. I like knowing what happens to everybody, but it feels info-dumpy. Maybe I will have a different response to it when I read it in sequence.

I’m not sure about all this. I thought there was going to be a Shocking Reveal and Drastic Fallout, and there doesn’t seem to be any of that. I thought it was a book about Shocking Secrets!! Where are my Shocking Secrets! I want my Shocking Secrets!

The whole: I was partly right. The ending is kind of info-dumpy. And there indeed are not Shocking Secrets. But it turns out that Gail Godwin is really writing about something that’s kind of incompatible with Shocking Secrets. She’s writing about the harm that good people do to each other in the course of their lives; and how even when the harm you have done is irrevocable, it’s not a disaster and you don’t stop changing and growing and moving closer to being the person you’re supposed to be.

Though many disputes arise throughout Unfinished Desires, there is a bad guy in none of them. Maud and Tildy fight when Maud goes away for the summer, and from Tildy’s perspective it seems like Maud is being nasty; but when you see it on Maud’s side you can see exactly what happened. The same is true of Mother Ravenal and her reaction to the play — she caused harm to some of the girls under her care, but not malicious harm, and they recovered and she recovered, and they are all works in progress even to the very end of Mother Ravenal’s life. The only bad guy in the book is also one of only a few false notes for me, Tildy’s mother, Cornelia. She is purely spiteful and the engine of much of the conflict in the book, and I thought the book would have done just fine without that.

A good feature of the book is that Catholicism features prominently, but it’s neither demonized nor exalted. Godwin depicts the goodness in Catholicism, and the harm also. Like anything — a play, a prop, a sketchbook — its force for good or bad just depends on whose hands it’s in.

Having just praised Godwin’s measured way of writing, I will say that it felt a teeeeeeny bit bloodless at times. Call me a hypocrite, I know I deserve it! But there you go. No matter how dramatic the circumstances, the book refused to be dramatic about them, even a little bit. I got finished with Unfinished Desires and wanted to read about some finished desires, dammit, and I went to the library and read The Scarlet Pimpernel. And it was amazing.

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9 thoughts on “Review: Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin”

  1. This sounds very interesting. I love the way the title is so referential. I may have to read this, but would I, knowing it is “bloodless”? I suppose it depends if it shows itself in front of me at some point (which is how book selection often goes for me!)

    1. Well, if you read a different one of Gail Godwin’s books and enjoy it, please let me know. I liked her writing a lot but felt ultimately a bit dissatisfied with the story.

  2. Having just read my first ever Gail Godwin novel and enjoyed it a lot, I was most keen to read your review of this one. I recognised some of the good and not so good things about the book I read – there were definitely moments of bloodlessness, when Godwin slowed the narrative down and my own instincts were expecting change and a step up in tempo. But there was more of a shocking reveal in Flora than you had in yours. Still, I liked her writing style very much and would definitely read her again. Great review, though – put your finger on a lot of things that I felt about the book I read but hadn’t quite articulated to myself.

  3. I really like Gail Godwin–loved especially The Good Husband. But you’re right about how she holds back. There were some really “dramatic” events in that book, too, that unfolded quietly and almost analytically. I think that might be why I have to be in the right mood to read her. Thanks for the review–I’ll have to pick this one up when I’m ready for a break from the YA dystopiafest I’m in the middle of. =-)

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