Historical Fiction: Unfinished Desires, by Gail Godwin

3.0 out of 5 stars The play’s the thing

Unfinished Desires is a novel that sweeps through the 20th century. Mother Ravenel, headmistress emeritus of the private school for girls, St. Gabriel’s, dictates her memoirs, with the goal of memorializing the now-closed academy. Between her chapters are interspersed flashbacks, told in real time by various key players, including students and other teachers. The hook is cast early, when the elderly nun muses about the “toxic” class of 1955. Being set in the South, at a small school (only 15 girls per class), the cast of characters are inter-related, mostly daughters, nieces, and granddaughters of “old girls”, of whom Mother Ravenel (“Raving Ravenal”) is one. It is a potent mixture of personalities, with some regarding St. Gabriel’s as a sort of heaven, and some, a sort of hell. It all breaks loose toward the end of the book during and  after the staging of the class play.

The story is a dramatic one, what with all the personality clashes, adolescent behaviors, and adults’ motivations, Its impetus, however, is often impeded by long passages of religious “meditations” and prayers, expressed mainly, though not exclusively, by the headmistress. The central figures, students Tildy Stratton, Chloe Starnes, and Maud Norton, come across as more mature than most high school freshmen I’ve encountered. Balancing Mother Ravenel’s demanding, no nonsense persona are the gentle Uncle Henry, Chloe’s guardian, and teacher Mother Molloy, who would feel at home in The Bells of St. Mary’s. As an author, one of Godwin’s recurring themes is women’s search for identity, and Unfinished Desires is no exception. She is a gifted writer whose prose is often luminous, with the ability to incorporate humor and pathos without overdoing either. In this case, however, a little less religious philosophizing is in order.

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