From just that outline, I thought I knew what would happen in Gail Godwin’s new book Flora: A Novel (Bloomsbury, digital galley via NetGalley). Young Helen would be dazzled by the sophistication of her older cousin and would want to emulate her in all things, right up to the fateful moment of betrayal when Flora’s feet of clay would be revealed. After all, similar plots have driven other coming-of-age novels, including Anne Rivers Siddons’ Nora, Nora, Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, even Godwin’s 1984 The Finishing School.
Well, I was wrong, way wrong, but Godwin gets everything right in her lovely, nuanced story of girls and guardians and the ghosts who haunt our hearts. Helen Anstruther, a writer in her 70s, looks back to when she was “going on 11,” and still reckoning with the recent death of her beloved grandmother who has raised her since her own mother died years ago. Now her father, the high school principal, has gone off to do secret war work in Oak Ridge and has imported his wife’s cousin Flora from Alabama to look after Helen.
Helen — precocious, imaginative, a bit bratty — is patently disdainful of country mouse Flora, an effusive pleaser who wears her heart on her sleeve. And there is no escape — the two are confined to the house and yard because of a polio outbreak, their only visitors the minister, the housekeeper Mrs. Jones, and the ex-soldier Finn who delivers groceries. Helen is the first to meet Finn and hear his history, and she’s increasingly possessive of his attention, even fantasizing the day when her father returns, Flora goes back to Alabama to teach school, and Finn moves into the house. He’ll be able to choose from the rooms named after “the Recoverers,” the former TB sufferers and ex-mental patients who once lived there under the care of Helen’s doctor grandfather.
Godwin seamlessly blends summer set pieces — Flora and Helen playing “Fifth Grade,” the two entertaining Finn for dinner, Helen talking books and ghosts to Mrs. Jones – with the rich backstory of family history. Helen clings to Flora’s comments about the mother she doesn’t remember, and upbraids Flora when she unwittingly welcomes a visit from a relative her grandmother despised. But the outside world doesn’t really intrude until news of the Hiroshima bombing arrives on the eve of Helen’s birthday, when Helen herself initiates the events whose devastating consequences follow her the rest of her life.
Years later, she turns that summer over in her mind, remembers Flora, reflects on remorse — and writes this fine book.