I was profoundly moved by Gail Godwin’s UNFINISHED DESIRES. I have read most of her books, having begun my literary fascination with Ms. Godwin with one of her early novels, A MOTHER AND TWO DAUGHTERS.
When I read during the Christmas holiday week that UNFINISHED DESIRES, about an all-girls Catholic High School, was coming out in January, my only wish was that it had come out during the Christmas break, when I traditionally spend my week off taking a reading vacation. A review I read after the holidays by Lauren Bufferd in BookPage increased my anticipation for the latest Godwin novel: “It’s only January, but if you plan on reading just one great novel in 2010, this might be it,”
UNFINISHED DESIRES was definitely worth the wait. I savored this evocative novel that captures so realistically the spirit, conflicts, competition and rivalries, the jealousies and dynamics that occur in an all-girls Catholic high school.
The novel is set at The Academy of Mt. St. Gabriel, a school located in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. I attended an all-girls’ Catholic high school, The Academy of Mt. St. Ursula, in the Bronx. The settings and school names may be different, and the girls from different demographics, but therein the differences end.
UNFINISHED DESIRES recounts the life of the headmistress, Mother Ravenel, while she presided at Mt. St. Gabriel’s, and especially one year in 1952. The repercussions of an incident that occurred in that year almost brought her down and still haunts her in her old age. The plot’s suspense revolves around that incident—one that was conceived by a headstrong student whose mother attended Mt. St. Gabriel’s and was a classmate of Mother Ravenel’s.
There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is not full of high drama, but is one of delicious detail. And it’s the details in this wonderfully rendered novel, the relationships and friendships between the girls, their teachers, the headmistress and the relationships of the headmistress, that make it so poignant, realistic and worth the read.
I have the fondest memories of my education at Mt. St. Ursula. I will be attending my 40th high school reunion this spring. UNFINISHED DESIRES brought me back to a time of innocence, where the biggest problems we faced were test scores, not getting a call from a Fordham boy we had a crush on, a hurt classmate who did not get asked to the Fordham prom and you did, calling up a boy you had a crush on and asking him to the Sophomore Tea. And, yes, there was jealousy, competition, rivalries and conflicts at my high school. Where in life are there not? But they were healthy rivalries and competition among us and understandable jealousies that never took on the bizarre and sordid nature we read about in the news.
Ours was a close-knit class of 200 girls. Shortly after reading UNFINISHED DESIRES, I was asked by my high school to write a letter to my classmates encouraging them to attend our 40th reunion. I was honored. My memories were already back at the Mount for several days before the request came after reading UNFINISHED DESIRES.
Some of my happiest days and fondest memories were of the four years I spent at the Mount. UNFINISHED DESIRES brought them all back.
I urge anyone who has attended an all girl’s Catholic High School to run to your nearest bookstore or library and get this book. It is a must-read! And for those who attended a co-ed public or co-ed Catholic school, read this book for your own edification. As Lauren Bufferd in her review for BookPage adds, “…the wise, human story [Godwin] tells reaches beyond the boundaries of region and religion, satisfying any reader looking for a good story.”
UNFINISHED DESIRES has received rave reviews in many publications, including in The New York Times, which hailed it as "reserved yet powerful" … "Godwin has created several deeply affecting characters."
Following is another excerpt of Lauren Bufferd’s rave review in BookPage:
“Complex intergenerational relationships of blood, friendship and passion abound in this powerful novel. Best friends jockey for position, closeness threatens to spill over into physical intimacy and the power struggles between mothers and daughters, teachers and students seethe and swarm.”
To read the entire review, go to http://www.bookpage.com/books-10012714-Unfinished+Desires