Kathleen's Reviews > Unfinished Desires

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin
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's review
Jun 06, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: favorite-contemporary-authors

I approached this book with some trepidation not wanting to read about nuns abusing innocent students in Catholic schools, nun bashing in general, or abuses of the Catholic Church. The novel is built around the fictional memoir of an elderly headmistress writing in her Boston retirement about her many years in a girls school in the mountains of North Carolina, wrestling with regrets about her own school years as well as those in the early 1950's. Fiercely guarding the school's reputation in her writing, even though it has been closed for some time, the head mistress wrestles with her own demons as she looks back. In these passages, Godwin weaves theology and philosophy artfully and reveals the woman's humanity over and over again.

Referring to the memoir as "a fascinating document of a 'lost girl world,'" one key character reveals what most of the students, her close friends, would believe of their middle and high school days. However, the head mistress provided the students with rigorous academics and insisted on critical thinking and extensive reading as part of their substantial education. At the same time, viewing the young women as "works in progress," she dealt pragmatically with the behaviors that wreak havoc in young women's lives today..."I have watched generations of girls begin friendships. Wryly, cautiously, coyly, pushily; setting up rules and dividing up powers; vying for advantage or trying to fascinate..." Those behaviors drove the plot.

Jealousy, envy, anger, old rivalries, secrets, mothers and daughters, confused vocations, hubris, loneliness, there is so much within this novel. "All these lives" one reader of the memoir casually comments with a hint of reproof, but that is the power of this novel.

The understanding of the impact of their school experiences comes in the final pages for the women who were at the center of the novel; for me, these detailed accounts of the "rest of the story" were unnecessary, but I might have misunderstood something larger.

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