Evensongby Gail Godwin
To read Gail Godwin is to touch the very core of human experience. With inimitable grace and aching emotional precision, Godwin probes our own complexities in characters whose lives oscillate between success and struggle, stoic resolve and quixotic temptation, bitter disappointment and small, sacred joys. Now with Evensong, she again translates our everyday
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To read Gail Godwin is to touch the very core of human experience. With inimitable grace and aching emotional precision, Godwin probes our own complexities in characters whose lives oscillate between success and struggle, stoic resolve and quixotic temptation, bitter disappointment and small, sacred joys. Now with Evensong, she again translates our everyday existence into soul-touching truths as she brings to brilliantly realized life the people of a small Smoky Mountain townand a woman whose world is indelibly altered by them.
Washington Post Book World
The New York Times
Washington Post Book World
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A DEEPLY CONSIDERED, EVEN DIGNIFIED NOVEL . . . One stays engaged with the story for sheer narrative hook: As with story lines from Dickens . . . you simply want to find out who does what to whom. . . . The final beauty of Evensong is its ability to address Godto address the mystery of faith by comprehending, then embracing, this premise of uncertainty itself."
The Boston Sunday Globe
"EVENSONG LINGERS IN THE MIND. . . . Meticulousness and precision are, indeed, Godwin's greatest strengths. In matters liturgical and clerical, her command is impeccable."
The New York Times Book Review
"[A] SENSITIVE, PERFECTLY PACED NOVEL . . . A story full of fresh, spiritual wisdom . . . Smashing one of the strangest taboos in American literature, Godwin may have finally brought religion back from the wilderness and made it a safe subject for literary fiction."
The Christian Science Monitor
"[A] RICH NEW NOVEL . . . with the narrative verve and moral gravity that made earlier novels of hers so appealing."
The New York Times
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It all began on a Friday evening. I mean "began" in the old storytelling sense, for oftener than not what we call beginnings are fulfillments of things set in motion a long time ago.
It was the Friday evening before the first Sunday in Advent, that season of spiritual expectation in the Church calendar: a clear, frosty evening at the end of November, with a bite to it. Winter in the Great Smokies would shortly be upon us, the winter that would see us into the next century and the new millennium. Other things were on their way to us as well, things we neither anticipated nor, in some cases, could even imagine. This is the story of how we met them and were changed by them.
My husband and I had eaten an early supper together, some of his chili, perfected during his extended bachelor years, and then he was off to the school again. I was rinsing our dishes under the tap, brooding--but with a fair amount of equanimity by this time--over the fact that he had neglected to kiss me again. I heard his car start, but it didn't go anywhere, and then there he was, back in the kitchen, his face already ruddy from the cold.
"Stubborn girl. You were supposed to lock the door behind me."
"What did you forget?" To kiss you, I was hoping he would say.
"Time for my wool cap. 'While the earth remaineth, summer and winter shall not cease,' and the bald head shall cry anew for its covering." Adrian liked to improvise on scripture. "Now where did I--"
"All your hats and gloves are in the box in the hall closet. Labeled 'Winter.'"
"The things you do for me, Margaret."
"I did it for myself, too. My winter things are in there along withyours."
During the minute or so that it took him to dash down the hall, locate his old Navy watch cap, and return to the kitchen in the act of pulling it snugly down to his eyebrows, I was granted a little blip of respite. Things had not been well between us since last summer, but during this momentary spot of light, I entered a different kind of time. Significant memories pressed close with the intensity felt when living them, and recalled to me how much I had wanted this life with this man and how equally much I had feared it would never come to pass. And yet here we were in it, "for better for worse." In the wedding service the four words exist as a unit, unseparated by even so much as a comma. Had I expected to live only in the better side of the phrase? Into this wider perspective hope was allowed room, and something of it must have communicated to Adrian, because he now remembered what he had forgotten his first time out the door.
"Well," he said, touching his lips to mine and actually looking at me as if I was there with him, "hold the fort, as your father used to say. And please lock up this time."
"My father and I never locked the rectory back in Romulus. I don't think the vestry ever bothered to give him a key."
"Those were more trusting times, before people started blasting each other to smithereens over parking places. And your father's rectory wasn't so near the bus station that any fruitcake on foot could be at your door in five minutes."
"No, but once in Romulus I came back from church and found a woman upstairs in my bedroom closet, going through the pockets of my clothes."
"You never told me this." He looked intrigued. His hands stayed on my shoulders. "What was she doing in your closet?"
"She said she was looking for cigarette butts."
"Was she a parishioner?"
"No, she'd just showed up at church. But she never came back after that."
"Well, I don't wonder." His eyes rolled upward and I knew he was picturing the scene. Then he laughed, a typical Adrian-laugh. The surprised laugh of a reserved man ambushed by the gift of ludicrousness. Making me wish I had ten more such anecdotes stashed away to keep him standing there holding onto me and laughing. But then it was over and I could tell from his face he was already out at the school. "I'm not going to carry over my flannel pajamas yet," he said, releasing me. "That would be capitulating to winter too soon."
He'd taken to spending most weekends out at Fair Haven School, where he was chaplain--and now acting headmaster, since the sudden death of Dr. Sandlin late last spring. All faculty who lived off campus took turns spending nights at the school, along with the resident staff. A founding principle of Dr. Sandlin's had been the importance of consistent family routines for these seventy-five disaffected teenagers whose parents preferred to maintain them long distance via their checkbooks. Some of the students came from backgrounds so unfamilial that even meals in common were foreign to them. "You have to force them to do things with others," Adrian was always saying.
As I passed the hall closet on the way to my study, to finish my sermon for Gus and Charles's wedding tomorrow, I sniffed the lingering cedar odor from the briefly opened box in which our all-cotton clerical shirts from Wippell's in England crossed the Atlantic together, and where our winter things now snuggled side by side even if we no longer did, and I was mystified anew by this whole thing we humans do when we take it into our heads to love one particular person.
It would be the first marriage for Gus (Augusta) Eubanks, a local architect, and the second for Charles Tye, the medical director of our local health clinic, whose wife had left him and their daughter three years before. We'd had the wedding rehearsal this afternoon, precocious twelve-year-old Jennifer Tye strutting about like a proud mother hen. Jennifer was convinced that her efforts had brought about this match, and to a large extent she was right. Gus and Charles were both extremely busy people who tended to neglect their personal lives, she had explained to me, and so after she determined Gus would be ideal for her father--and herself--she had plotted to make sure they got together. Like many children of alcoholics (in Charles's case, a recovering one), Jennifer felt she was responsible for everybody in the world. After the rehearsal, I discovered that she had gone around to all the pews and inserted white ribbons with the numbers 1, 2, and 3 into the appropriate pages of the hymnals so tomorrow's weddin
g guests would be sure to find their places quickly for the chosen hymns.
Through the closed windows of my study I could hear the muted scrape-scrape of fallen leaves on the weathered bricks of the garth that connected the rectory to the church. Dry, tentative agitations similar in tone to those of my well-bred parishioners, shuffling and murmuring among themselves at coffee hour over the latest assault (usually mine) on All Saints High Balsam's time-honored customs, or deploring the fast-crumbling status of the world as they'd always known it. I scribbled a reminder to myself to get someone to clean our gutters before the snow came. Otherwise Adrian would be up there on the tall ladder, and he already had more jobs than he could handle.
What form, if any, was Gus's prenuptial nervousness taking? Was it different when you were forty-two? Six years ago I had been twenty-seven and terrified my marriage still might not come to pass because I desired it so much.
On the eve of my wedding, I sat in my seminary room, almost afraid to move, and said a certain collect for evening prayer over and over until I knew it by heart.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
That final entreaty never fails to arrest me. Shield the joyous. The very arrangement of the words calls up joy's end even as you're evoking pictures of its many manifestations.
What else to do but pray for the person on the verge of realizing a cherished hope, for the couple about to consummate their love, for those children running on sure feet toward a mother's open arms? The future arches above us all like a giant question mark, looming or embracing by whims and turns. Just as in those medieval drawings, the wheel of fortune inexorably revolves, pitching today's celebrity into tomorrow's trash heap and raising yesterday's beggar to the throne. Rapture gets smothered in the rumple of dailiness; the clean, passionate pledge becomes choked with weedy extenuations. Children stumble and hurt themselves and cry, and even die. Mothers and fathers go away and never come back.
Or just imagine the elation of that first Cherokee scout when he reached the summit of High Balsam in whose shadow our community now barricades itself complacently. I see him gazing out incredulously upon the vast blue sweep and swell of peaks beneath the sky vault. He gains his breath, utters a prayer of thanksgiving to the Great Spirits, then lightfoots back down through bounties of bark and berries and flashings of game to tell the others: there's no one else here! All this is ours because we found it.
Surrounded by such uncertainties, whether they play themselves out in a year, or ten, or a thousand, what else can we do but appeal for mercy and protection to a love beyond clocks and calendars and mortal frailties, a love wise and faithful beyond all imagining. Yet somehow, over eons, we have become able to imagine it--in part. And sometimes even to practice it--in brief spurts.
When Adrian and I were driving through Yorkshire on our honeymoon, the landscape was dotted with newborn lambs. Up and down the green slopes they raced, tottering on their wobbly legs, deviling one another, nipping at their mothers' undersides. Though we must have seen hundreds, we never tired of the sight. The lambs were of the same vintage as our own beginnings. Then one windy day we stopped for lunch at an inn up in Blanchland and Adrian innocently asked the only other person in the big drafty dining room, "What will become of all those lambs?" "Oh, we keep the females with black faces for breeding," said the man. "The rest will live out their carefree lives until September, after which you might well make the acquaintance of one on your dinner plate." He spoke in a languorous, educated, sarcastic voice. At first we'd taken him, in his tweeds and brogans, for an elderly English academic, touring the north country like ourselves. While we waited for our lunch, which was slow in coming, he'd walked us over t
o a huge empty fireplace and pointed out an ancient shelf built high up inside the gigantic flue. The shelf was furnished with a table, chair, and oil lamp. "Priest's hole ... more of 'em around here than mouse holes, you know. This village began as an abbey." That's when Adrian had asked casually about the lambs, and it turned out the man himself was a sheep farmer, in town on some errands. After he'd made the remark about the dinner plate, he glanced at me, probably expecting some squeamish protest, and quickly added: "They're stunned with darts, you know; don't feel a thing. We take them over to the abattoir. However, my wife ..." and here his crusty old face grew charmingly defenseless. "Every year she takes a fancy to one of the lambkins and pleads for his life. As a result, we have a bachelors' club of useless old rams braying about our place."
He's still in love with her, I thought. The sarcastic old sheep farmer was still in love with his wife. And I glanced sideways at Adrian, imagining how we, too, would grow old together and joke with strangers about each other's foibles, and I was profoundly stirred.
One spring weekend when I was a senior at the University of Virginia, I had come home to see my father and was cutting his hair in the garden behind the rectory when a man sauntered around the side of the house, carrying two books under his arm. My father introduced him as a new friend, an associate priest at the other Episcopal church in town. Then my father went inside to change his shirt after the haircut, and the man and I stood in the garden and talked. Before the sun had gone down on that afternoon I had set my heart on Adrian Bonner.
By Easter my father was dead of a stroke suffered on Good Friday during a reconsecration service for our church's vandalized outdoor crucifix. I graduated from college in May, moved out of the rectory to make way for the interim priest, and by the end of summer was living in New York with my mother's friend, Madelyn Farley, the set designer and creator of controversial theater pieces. That I had chosen to go off and make my home with this person who had destroyed my father's marriage, scandalized our parish, and robbed me of my mother when I was six, offended or baffled everyone who knew me. My oldest friend, Harriet, declared my act deranged. "Remember that nasty old witch you told me about? The one you were scared would drag you off into the closet and make you live with her when you were little? So what's the first thing you do when you grow up and get free of the closet? You look up the witch, you call her up on the telephone, and go and live with her."
There was truth in what Harriet said, but, like that other literal-minded friend, Horatio, she left a lot out.
The two years I stayed with Madelyn in Greenwich Village were, certainly from Horatio's viewpoint, the other side of the moon from the Virginia parish life in which I'd been reared. But beneath its surface irregularities, my living with this person my mother had gone away with was a natural and constructive progression. Having experienced Madelyn Farley throughout my girlhood as the enemy and the witch, I now as a woman needed to understand how my mother had experienced Madelyn as artist and agent of transformation. And in doing this I believe I came closer to discovering real glimpses of the person my mother had been, rather than tending the sputtering embers of the myth my father and I had made of her after she left us.
Those supercharged late suppers in Madelyn's loft with her artist-friends: how strange and intoxicating they must have been to my mother, Ruth Gower, who had gone straight from her Southern women's college to her older husband's rectory. Madelyn wasn't interested in food for itself, only as fuel for her artistic energies, or as an incentive to gather others around her for lively conversation. Except for her famous "energy grains," often gobbled like dry candy straight out of the jar, she existed happily on work, wine, and talk. Her young assistant, Shaun, who built exquisite and precise table models of her sets and then oversaw their life-sized construction for the stage, usually made a third at our long refectory table, where sketches and swatches of material and notes for Madelyn's latest theater piece were shoved to the far end to make room for pizzas or take-out Chinese. But frequently there were other friends: theater people or poets or painters, most of them gay men. They definitely did care about food,
and would bring jumbo-sized containers of delicious things from their local delis or from their own kitchens.
I had never, at home or at college, partaken of get-togethers quite like these, where everybody was fair game for irreverent dismantlements. Anything at all, sacred or profane, was eligible to be zestfully ripped apart--and then just as enthusiastically restored to life in some unlikely new form. Of course, tearing things up and reassembling them in shocking ways was Madelyn Farley's forte, it was how she had made her fame in the theater world. The first time I ever met her, she could hardly wait to announce to my father that she was wearing a shirt a costume-designer friend had made for her out of a cut-up altar frontal.
I imagined my mother, a sheltered female of twenty-eight when she left us, suddenly transposed to Madelyn's loft and set down in the middle of these saucy rollicks. Ruth's whole life had been spent among people who spoke in low-voiced, careful codes, the very cadences and word choices of their speech calculated to talk around things: to smooth over, prettify, or exclude. Had she at first found Madelyn and her friends ill-mannered--even blasphemous? But perhaps, given my mother's own play of mind and her aptitude for parody and caricature, which she'd had to squash in her role as rector's wife, she had simply discovered herself to be home at last.
I remember one evening in particular, the evening of Madelyn's "new birthday." She had proclaimed that from now on she would celebrate her birthday on the date of her successful triple bypass the previous year, when she had been born again.
During dessert someone happened to remark that we were thirteen at the table that night, and Madelyn immediately leapt astride her pet hobbyhorse, turning religion to her own purposes, and began casting us for a reenactment of the Last Supper.
She chose Shaun for John the Beloved Disciple, who languished against her shoulder. The leading role she assigned to herself ("since it is my party"). Fernando the dancer mimed his part as a creepy, supple Judas, slinking around the table to listen in on conversations and fawn over Jesus. Harvey the acid-tongued poet got to be Peter, jealous of John. ("It beats me what He sees in that mooning wimp.") Pru, the costume designer who had cut up the altar frontal to make the shirt for Madelyn all those years ago, insisted on being the woman in the kitchen making the dinner ("I think it's time we realize that supper didn't get cooked by itself! I can come out and serve it and look decorative--and maybe wash your feet with some precious oil, Maddy"), so that meant one of the men had to play two disciples. I was cast as Thomas, Madelyn explaining that the doubting role would be good for me "after your lifetime of unquestioned belief."
As the preacher's kid, I was also called on to supply thumbnail sketches of the lesser known disciples so the others could get into their parts: Matthew the tax collector; earnest and literal-minded Philip; Peter's brother Andrew; John's brother James; skeptical Nathaniel ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"); Bartholomew, who was probably the same person as Nathaniel, which was just fine since one of us had to be two people; Simon Zealot, who some say was a Palestinian revolutionary; and James the Less, who may have been Jesus' brother. With so many brothers at the table there were ripe opportunities for sibling rivalry scenes (James the Less: "Mom always gave Him the biggest piece of fish at home").
Though my judgment was no doubt affected by all the wine we'd consumed, I remember being elated by our performance that night: our inspired spur-of-the-moment dialogue, the actors fleshing out their roles with such brio. While Pru was washing Madelyn's feet in a little porcelain basin of diluted Vitabath, Shaun raised his glass to Madelyn: "Here's to you, Teacher," he said feelingly (and you felt he was Shaun saying it to Madelyn as well as John saying it to his beloved teacher), "and here's to eternal companionship."
When things had reached their peak, Madelyn, with her stage sense of knowing when to quit, held up a hand and spoke the final words of our performance: "Shhh, fellows, the photographer's coming. Everybody who wants to be in the picture come and sit on this side of the table."
Our festive party turned out to be a Last Supper in its own right. That group of friends was never to gather around Madelyn's table again. Within a few months Fernando was gone, and before Madelyn's next new birthday, four more were dead, including Madelyn herself. (Later, in seminary, when I was writing a paper on Eucharistic Celebration, I fretted for days
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Author of Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!
Author of Before Women Had Wings
Author of The Deep End of the Ocean
Meet the Author
Gail Godwin was born in Alabama, grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and received her doctorate in English from the University of Iowa. She has taught at Vassar College and Columbia University and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 1981 Award in Literature from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. Three of her critically acclaimed novels, The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and A Mother and Two Daughters, were nominated for the National Book Award. Her other highly praised books include The Good Husband, Glass People, The Perfectionists, Dream Children, and Mr. Bedford and the Muses.
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Relationships, religion and redemption are the 3 R's in National Book Award nominee Gail Godwin's Evensong, an eloquently rendered, albeit sometimes decelerated, story of a woman's path to spiritual identity. In this, her tenth novel, Ms. Godwin reintroduces us to Margaret, the daughter in Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991). We are reminded that Margaret was deserted at the age of six by her mother, and raised by her father, a too needy Episcopalian rector who suffered from bouts of depression and 'lived by the grace of daily obligation.' Later, either responding to a call or displaying filial approbation, Margaret chooses to follow in her father's professional footsteps. When we meet her again she is attending General Theological Seminary, and has set her sights on Rev. Adrian Bonner, a balding, fortyish, self-denigrating cleric. Margaret is convinced that having each other will make more of them both. Dropped off at a Catholic orphanage by his parents, Adrian also bears scars of rejection. As a 10-year-old, he sought approval by imitating the institution's director - the young Adrian fashioned a rudimentary flagellum with 'strips of rubber from a piece of inner tube,' and punished himself daily. An unlikely candidate for conjugal bliss, a facsimile of Margaret's father? Indeed. It puzzles why Margaret, as astute as she is in the study of human nature, did not see this herself. Only later does she unearth 'a flinty bedrock of self-hatred' beneath Adrian's chronic despair. Becoming temporarily impotent, he makes 'bitter jokes about December graybeards who took to themselves May brides.' As the world stands ready for Y2K, the Bonners move to High Balsam, a small North Carolina community. Margaret is to be rector of All Saints High Balsam, and Adrian on the staff of a therapeutic high school. A paradigm American community in economic straits, High Balsam is ripe for an onslaught by Grace Munger, a rabid and rotund evangelist who receives direct instructions from the Lord. Describing herself as a 'freelance apostle,' Grace says God has mandated a parade - a Millennium Birthday March for Jesus. When Margaret declines Grace's invitation to join her march, the evangelist digs in her booted heels and campaigns to change the young rector's mind. Two surprising visitors add to the turmoil in Margaret's life. First, there is the appearance of Tony, a 'scraggy old customer' who claims to be a monk from the Abbey of the Transfiguration. Margaret feels obligated to invite the 80-year-old to spend the night with them, a stay that becomes days and then weeks. Tony, it turns out, is as adroit at duplicity as he is at rolling his own cigarettes. By making himself useful, he slowly insinuates himself into the couple's lives. A second unexpected houseguest is Chase Zorn, a rebellious teenager who has been expelled from Adrian's school, a 'volatile boy, seething with intelligence and mistrust, testing to the limit anyone who dared love him.' The addition of these two disparate personalities to a rather benign household proves to be an incendiary mix, both literally and figuratively, when Tony confesses that he is Adrian's father and a forgotten iron sets fire to Margaret's church. One of the novel's most poignant scenes is found in Margaret's conversation with a young girl who disdains the Bible as a book that tells one how to be good. Margaret explains, 'It's a record of people keeping track of their relationship with God over a long period of time.... People go through some pretty awful stages as they fumble toward what they're meant to be.' Moving toward what one is meant to be is at the heart of Ms. Godwin's well articulated tale. Whether defiantly questioning or unquestioningly faithful, Margaret's journey is much like everyman's journey. Evensong may help us along the way.
This is an excellent, thought-provoking book. Besides an interesting story, many important issues are raised. These are the kinds of things that like to churn around in your head even after you've finished the book.
At first, I couldn't get into this long meandering narrative, but once I was hooked in Margaret's world, I couldn't put it down.