“We are all a work in progress…” Mother Suzanne Ravenel, from Unfinished Desires, by Gail Godwin
A Catholic school for girls nestled into the hills of North Carolina, circa 1951. Three young girls, all needy in their own private ways, all bearing hidden strengths and talents, all searching for their place in the world as they travel the pathway to becoming women. Their friendship sets in motion an event that profoundly affects the lives of several of the adults around them, from one of their young teachers to the school’s matriarch, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, whose own history is intrinsically bound with that of Mount St. Gabriel’s school.
I’ve been reading (and loving) Gail Godwin’s work since the late 1970’s. She’s one of the first “serious” modern women authors I started following when I graduated from the young adult genre of books back in my early high school days. So she and I have a long history together, and I was delighted to see she had published her thirteenth novel.
But I was a little anxious too – it’s been a long while between novels for this lady, and I was a bit anxious. Perhaps the magic was gone, perhaps I wouldn’t feel that instant connection with her characters I was so accustomed to.
No worries. When I met Mother Ravenel and Mother Malloy walking the grounds of Mount St. Gabriel’s, I knew Ms. Godwin and I were on solid ground. For Godwin is at her best (at least for me) when she writes about the spiritual life. From Father Melancholy’s Daughter to Evensong, and now Unfinished Desires, she explores the transformative effects of faith and belief – in a higher power, and in one’s own possibilities.
There are many transformations in Unfinished Desires, and perhaps one of the things I most enjoyed about it was at the same time one of the few things that sometimes made it difficult to read. Three “eras” come to play in this novel – the very inception of Mount St. Gabriel’s, the events centered around the ninth grade class of 1951-52, and the present day, as the 85 year old Mother Ravenel writes her memoirs. While I love going back and forth in time when I read, sometimes it was hard to keep all the stories straight. But it was worth it in the end, especially in the final chapters when Godwin drew all the pieces together and the three friends from the 1950’s – all elderly women now – meet again and “fill in all the blanks” regarding their lives.
“I look on it as a transition,” says Maud to her friend Tildy in 2001, discussing Maud’s plans now that she is a widow. “Maybe even a transformation. Maybe I’m turning into something else, only I don’t know what it’s going to be yet.”
What a marvelous thought, that at age 75-ish, one can still be a “work in progress,” can “turn into something else” yet new and undiscovered.
And how marvelous that Godwin still writes such lovely prose, still conveys the workings of the human heart and spirit in her characters at age 13, 35, and 80.