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Posts Tagged ‘Gail Godwin’

I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.

 

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floraIt’s the summer of 1945 and, in a big old house in a North Carolina mountain town, 10-year-old Helen is under the guardianship of her 22-year-old cousin Flora.

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.

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Trust me. In spite of a terrible title that makes it sound like a tawdry bodice-ripper, Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin is a wonderful, layered novel of girls and women, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Also, adolescent longing, spiritual yearning, thwarted dreams and long memories. No wonder Godwin couldn’t come up with a more appealing title, although I’m leaning toward “The Reckoning of the Red Nun”  or “At Mount Saint Gabriel’s.” 

Mount Saint Gabriel’s is a Catholic girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains, and near the turn of this century, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, 85 and blind, is dictating a history of the school in a tape recorder at the behest of “old girls,” her former students. The nun was once a student, too, so there are her schooldays and friends to revisit, including her writing of “The Red Nun,” a play about the school’s founding.

More troubling, though, is how she will recall “the toxic year” of 1951-52, when Mother Malloy came to teach the ninth-grade class ruled over by Tildy Stratton and her chosen friends. Tildy is the niece of Ravenel’s best friend, who died young, leaving behind a twin sister (Tildy’s mom) who detests Ravenel. Tildy’s new best friend, orphaned Chloe, is the daughter of another “old girl” as well as a cousin.

Such family relationships complicate the already entangled plot and timelines. As in such previous novels as A Southern Family and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Godwin is guilty of trying to make too many angels dance on the head of a pin. The book sprawls and meanders; it is, as my friend Pre reported, “dense, dense, dense.”

But we agree that perseverance pays off as Tildy’s revival of “The Red Nun” brings revelation and reckoning to all involved. Yes, the male characters are shadows next to their fully rounded female counterparts, and are duly relegated to supporting roles. Sisterhood, in all its forms, remains the focus in this rewarding tale.

I am not Catholic, nor did I ever go to boarding school. But Godwin’s fine, nuanced writing and sense of place, combined with my own memories of summer camp and college, made me feel like an “old girl” pondering her revisionist history of Mount Saint Gabriel’s.

Open Book: I borrowed Unfinished Desires (Random House) from the library and returned it on time.

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