Gail Godwin is the author of twelve novels and several nonfiction works, including Evensong, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and The Making of a Writer, Volume One. She is also a three-time National Book Award finalist and the recipient of several National Endowment for the Arts grants.
The Story: In 2001, Mother Suzanne Ravenel is asked to record the memories of her years at Mount St. Gabriel’s, a Catholic girls school nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. The request stirs up troubling memories for the frail octogenarian, who first entered the boarding school as a student before rising up the ranks to headmistress. Ravenel particularly wishes to forget the fateful 1951-52 school year, which brought her in contact with three young women: Tildy, a charismatic teen who suffers from dyslexia; Chloe, a gifted artist and orphan; and Maud, an overachiever with a middle-class background. When Tildy is charged with directing the school play, an unearthed secret threatens to alter the lives of everyone involved.
Random House. 416 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780345483201
"Godwin writes a nuanced work. The characters are three-dimensional and flawed, and Unfinished Desires grows organically from the consequences of these flaws." Robin Vidimos
NY Times Book Review
"[R]eserved yet powerful. … Godwin has created several deeply affecting characters." Dominique Browning
"The world of Mount St. Gabriel’s is small, but the novel feels sprawling, and, if these women’s power struggles are often petty, they are also delicious. … Unfinished Desires achieves its own sense of daring, freedom and grace." Valerie Sayers
"[R]esonates more with faithful recording than with vivid invention. … For readers brought up in any orthodox tradition, Unfinished Desires will be provocative and rewarding reading." Valerie Miner
Christian Science Monitor
"Godwin skillfully portrays the drama and intricacy of teenage relationships, though the climax of the story might leave you a little flat. … The greatest strength of Unfinished Desires is that it really does encapsulate the way that teenage girls operate: the nuance, the intricacy, the sneakiness, and the devotion." Katie Ward
"Unfinished Desires is an awkward title, so it should be no surprise that Gail Godwin’s novel has awkward moments. … Although Godwin writes incisively of ambitions and disasters, she packs entirely too much plot into this novel." Betsy Willeford
"[A] confusing hodgepodge of names, events, some back story on the girls—and it all adds up to not very much. … 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." Valerie Ryan
To sum it up, the consensus regarding Unfinished Desires is, well, that there is no consensus. Critics were definite in their opinions, which were all quite contradictory. Several believed Godwin skillfully weaved past and present while others thought it a confusing jumble. Some described the summary of the girl’s lives after Mount St. Gabriel’s as disappointingly brief, others thought it dragged on painfully. Finally, several reviewers found it to be a fascinating coming-of-age tale, but others thought it would give mothers of teen girls bad dreams. Most agreed, however, that the unveiling of the "deep, dark secret" proved anticlimactic. Nevertheless, for Godwin fans and for readers interested in daily life at a Catholic girls school, this one should hit the spot. Maybe.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. In Mother Ravenel’s 2001 reflections on Mount St. Gabriel’s, how does she foreshadow the events that transpire in the “toxic year” of 1951? By the end of Unfinished Desires, do you think she’s reconciled herself to this “year better forgotten”? Does she “prevail”? Does she leave anything “undone”?
2. Who is the Red Nun? How does the myth and tragedy of her origin shape, sustain, and “protect” the Mount St. Gabriel’s community?
3. What is “holy daring” as Mother Elizabeth Wallingford, foundress of Mount St. Gabriel’s, conceived it? Discuss how Mother Ravenel interprets and relates “holy daring” and “a woman’s freedom in God.”
4. How and why does Mother Malloy, at Madeline’s urging, encourage Tildy to keep her “intrepid little soul”? Does her diligent tutoring change Tildy?
5. Why does Mother Ravenel place Tildy in charge of the freshman class revival of the Red Nun play? Does she ultimately regret this decision?
6. What is Agnes’s “mortal mistake”? Do you think she anticipated her own untimely death? Why or why not? Is Chloe really “haunted” by her mother?
7. Tildy understands that “best friends have been known to do hurtful things to each other.” Does this explain why Suzanne Ravenel decides to enter as a postulant without her best friend, Antonia? If not, why did she “jump the gun on [her] vocation”?
8. Do you agree with Tildy that “some girls are just always background” and “some girls just stand out”? How does Chloe counter Tildy’s argument? Why doesn’t Chloe unveil her “masterpiece” to the class?
9. Discuss the impact of Cornelia Stratton’s “dry ice” comments on those she loves. How does her “caustic tongue” influence her daughters? Her sister, Antonia? Mother Ravenel?
10. Consider Tildy and Maud’s friendship from its beginning and from each girl’s perspective. How does their friendship evolve? Is it, like each of them, a “work in progress”? How do their perceptions of each other change? How would you define their relationship at the end of the novel?
11. Reading David Copperfield for Mother Malloy’s class, Maud is introduced to the idea that “someone else’s story, if told a certain way, could make you ache as though it were your own.” Do you identify strongly with one particular character’s story in Unfinished Desires? Which one(s)?
12. Discuss the importance and power of secrets in Unfinished Desires. How do they serve to either unite or isolate those who tell them and those whom they are about?