Unfinished Desires

( 17 )

Overview

From Gail Godwin, three-time National Book Award finalist and acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Evensong and The Finishing School, comes a sweeping new novel of friendship, loyalty, rivalries, redemption, and memory.

It is the fall of 1951 at Mount St. Gabriel’s, an all-girls school tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. Tildy Stratton, the undisputed queen bee of her class, befriends Chloe Starnes, a new student recently orphaned by the untimely and ...

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Unfinished Desires

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Overview

From Gail Godwin, three-time National Book Award finalist and acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Evensong and The Finishing School, comes a sweeping new novel of friendship, loyalty, rivalries, redemption, and memory.

It is the fall of 1951 at Mount St. Gabriel’s, an all-girls school tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. Tildy Stratton, the undisputed queen bee of her class, befriends Chloe Starnes, a new student recently orphaned by the untimely and mysterious death of her mother. Their friendship fills a void for both girls but also sets in motion a chain of events that will profoundly affect the course of many lives, including the girls’ young teacher and the school’s matriarch, Mother Suzanne Ravenel.

Fifty years on, the headmistress relives one pivotal night, trying to reconcile past and present, reaching back even further to her own senior year at the school, where the roots of a tragedy are buried.

In Unfinished Desires, a beloved author delivers a gorgeous new novel in which thwarted desires are passed on for generations–and captures the rare moment when a soul breaks free.  

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A large, roomy story of love, loss, fidelity, secrets, rivalry and faith in the lives of a charming, flawed troupe of characters…. Provocative and rewarding."—Boston Globe

"This rich world…draws and holds the reader from the first to the final pages of the work. " —Denver Post

"Tender but clear-eyed …Godwin’s South has always been a place where charm and good manners can barely conceal the emotional drama pulsing beneath the surface…Recalls the fraught family bonds of Godwin’s best novels…"—San Francisco Chronicle

"Godwin’s reserved yet powerful new novel is set in a boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina…Though it’s a beautiful well-intentioned institution, the school is anything but serene…."—New York Times Book Review

"If you plan on reading just one great novel in 2010, this might be it… a big old-fashioned book about jealousy and passion at a Catholic girl’s school, written with Gail Godwin’s trademark depth and humor…."—Bookpage

"Godwin’s writing is … marvelous, engaging, clever." —Christian Science Monitor

"Poignant and transporting…convincing, satisfying."—Publishers Weekly

"Intoxicating… Godwin’s latest novel charms."—Asheville Citizen-Times

"Masterly."—Dallas Morning News

“A strong story populated by a host of memorable characters–smart, satisfying fiction, one of the author’s best in years.”—Kirkus Reviews starred review,

"If you plan on reading just one great novel in 2010, this might be it. Unfinished Desires is a big old-fashioned book about jealousy and passion at a Catholic girl’s school, written with best-selling author Gail Godwin’s trademark depth and humor … Godwin’s 13th novel is filled with penetrating observations on women’s friendships, family and faith … The wise, human story she tells reaches beyond the boundaries of region and religion, satisfying any reader looking for a good story."—Bookpage

"
What better setting for exploring female bonds than a Southern Catholic girls’ school where epic feuds and forgiveness pass through generations? Godwin’s take is smart and intriguing." Good Housekeeping

"Ten Titles to Watch For: This seasoned author revisits familiar territory. Fascinating, always."—O: The Oprah Magazine


Valerie Sayers
The novel's structure is odd and original, with multiple time frames and perspectives, and a large cast of characters—difficult to sort out at first. Soon enough, though, clear patterns emerge…The world of Mount St. Gabriel's is small, but the novel feels sprawling, and, if these women's power struggles are often petty, they are also delicious. Appalling characters are rendered sympathetic as we learn their secrets; good characters are allowed a decency that's surprisingly bracing. Though a where-are-they-now wrap-up section at the end is too long and too summarized, Unfinished Desires is usually brisk and involving.
—The Washington Post
Dominique Browning
…reserved yet powerful…Godwin has created several deeply affecting characters.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Bestselling author Godwin (Evensong; The Finishing School) brings readers back in time to the early 1950s in this endearing story of Catholic school girls and the nuns who oversee them. As Mother Suzanne Ravenel begins a memoir of her 60-plus years at Mount St. Gabriel's School in Mountain City, N.C., she's forced to re-examine the “toxic year” of 1951–1952, one of her worst at the school—beginning with the arrival of ninth-grade student Chloe Starnes, who's recently lost her mother, and Mother Malloy, a beautiful young nun assigned to the freshman class. Starnes and Malloy's arrivals presage a shift in the ranks of freshman Tildy Stratton's cruel clique, with significant consequences for all involved. Change, when it finally comes, stems from the girls' attempt to revive a play written years before by Ravenel. Godwin captures brilliantly the subtleties of friendships between teenage girls, their ambivalence toward religion and their momentous struggle to define people—especially themselves. Poignant and transporting, this faux memoir makes a convincing, satisfying novel. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Godwin's latest novel (after Queen of the Underworld) is a convoluted tale of intrigue at a girls' boarding school that spans generations. Mount St. Gabriel, an exclusive academy in the North Carolina mountains, was founded by two nuns at the beginning of the 20th century. The school's sheltered atmosphere promoted rigorous academic and religious education but allowed adolescent jealousies to fester unchecked. The story's major characters attended the school in the early 1950s, when the school's headmistress was the manipulative Mother Ravenel, herself an alumna from the 1920s, as were some of the students' mothers. The story hopscotches in time from the school's founding to the near present, when the elderly Mother Ravenel dictates her memoir and aging classmates reunite to reminisce. It's a chore to keep the many generations of characters straight, especially when so many are superficially drawn. The promise of uncovering Mother Ravenel's involvement in a past incident of seeming import to one of the families lures the reader on, but the denouement, though tragic, reveals little motivation beyond schoolgirl pettiness. VERDICT Of interest to die-hard Godwin fans.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
After a couple of subpar efforts, Godwin (Queen of the Underworld, 2006, etc.) is back in top form with a gripping tale of jealousies and power struggles at a Catholic girls' school. In the year 2001, elderly Mother Suzanne Ravenel tape-records her memories of her 50 years at Mount Saint Gabriel's in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Her worst memories are of the dreadful school year 1951-52, when a turbulent ninth grader provoked an outburst that resulted in the headmistress being sent on a leave of absence. Mother Ravenel's own student years at Mount Saint Gabriel's in the 1930s also figure in the story, as does her fraught friendship with Antonia Tilden. This being the South, the separate generations are connected by blood and grievances. Antonia's orphaned niece Chloe is in that 1951-52 ninth-grade class, and she becomes best friends with manipulative, needy Tildy Stratton, daughter of Antonia's embittered twin Cordelia, who's convinced that Suzanne Ravenel's pushiness led to Antonia abandoning her true vocation as a nun. Cordelia's animosity and malice drive the plot, as Tildy takes up her mother's vendetta against the admittedly bossy, self-righteous Mother Ravenel. Chloe's kind Uncle Henry is the only male character of any significance; the emphasis is on female friendships, especially the adolescent variety, with its gusts of hormonal emotions and intricate maneuvers for position. Bad mothers get a good deal of attention as well (there are quite a few of them), and Godwin elicits our understanding for all her characters without letting them off the hook for bad behavior. She skillfully unfolds fascinatingly tangled motives as she keeps the action bustling along. Movingfinal scenes show an old nun realizing that mixed motives matter less than a lifetime of service, and two old friends reconnecting after 55 years, matured and seasoned by what they've endured, but not so very different from what they were at 14. A strong story populated by a host of memorable characters-smart, satisfying fiction, one of the author's best in years.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345483218
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/27/2010
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 687,476
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including A Mother and Two Daughters, Violet Clay, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Evensong, The Good Husband, and Evenings at Five. She is also the author of The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961–1963, the first of two volumes, edited by Rob Neufeld. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants for both fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has written libretti for ten musical works with the composer Robert Starer. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Tour of the Grounds

Third Saturday in August 1951
Mount St. Gabriel’s
Mountain City, North Carolina

“When you’ve done as much girl-watching as I have, Mother Malloy, you can see even as they’re coming up through the lower grades how each class reveals itself as an organism in its own right. You’re not too tired for a bit of a ramble, I hope.”

“Not at all, Mother Ravenel. I’ve only been sitting on trains for two days.”

“Good, in that case”—the headmistress, as quick of step as she was in speech, veered suddenly off the gravel walk and, snatching up her ankle-length skirts, plunged down a woodland path—“we’ll take a turn around the new athletic field and then go up to the grotto and sit with the Red Nun awhile and have a little prayer to Our Lady in front of our Della Robbia.”

“Who is the Red Nun?”

Without slowing her pace, the headmistress turned back to reward the new young teacher with an appreciative smile.

“You know, I often still catch myself thinking of her as a ‘who.’ After all these years! The shortest way to put it is, she’s our mascot. If you can rightly call a six-foot-high ton of red marble a mascot. She’s been unfinished since the middle of the First World War. It’s quite a story, and you know what? I’m going to save it until we’re at the grotto. There are so many things I want to point out to you first. Now, where was I?”

“You were saying about—organisms?”

“Oh, yes. A class is never just a collection of individual girls, though it is certainly that, too, when you’re considering one girl at a time. But a class as a whole develops a group consciousness. It’s an organic unit, with its own special properties. While we’re having our walk, I will tell you a little about your ninth-grade girls, the upcoming freshman class. They are a challenging group, those girls. They will require control.”

“As a—an organism, you mean? Or—some ones in particular?”

“Both, Mother Malloy.”

In the presence of the headmistress, Mother Malloy, who was by habit cool and exact in speech, found herself stumbling and blurting. From my responses so far, she thought, this voluble, assured woman must be wondering how I am going to take charge of any class, not to mention a “challenging” one that requires “control.” Mother Malloy was vexed by the clumsiness that had come over her even as she had been descending the steps of the train, taking caution with her long skirts, thanking the conductor who steadied her by the elbow, when a nun wearing aviator’s sunglasses shot forward to claim her. Mother Ravenel was a vigorously handsome woman of medium height, with a high-colored face and fine white teeth. Snappy phrases, bathed in southern drawl, assailed the young nun from Boston. Her hand was clapped firmly between Mother Ravenel’s immaculately gloved ones and she was mortified that she had not remembered to put on her own gloves.

There was worse to come. Mother Ravenel introduced her uniformed Negro driver and a lighter-skinned young man: “This is Jovan—we call him our Angel of Transportation—and this is his grandson Mark, who will be going off to college next year.”

Mother Malloy extended her hand first to gray-haired Jovan, who took it after the merest hesitation. Though sensing she had done something outside of protocol, she had no choice but to repeat the gesture to young Mark, who, after a quick glance at his grandfather, shook her hand and bolted away to see to her trunk. While the two men loaded it into the back of the wood-paneled station wagon bearing the Mount St. Gabriel’s crest (the archangel with upturned palms floating protectively above mountain ranges), Mother Ravenel tipped her veiled head close to the new nun’s and gently confided, “We do things a little differently down here, Mother, but you’ll get used to our ways. I think you’ll find there’s a great regard between the races and just as much love—if not actually more.”

I have never seen a nun wearing sunglasses, Mother Malloy thought at the train station, trying to contain her mortification and offer it up.

“Of course, girls in their early teens are always difficult,” Mother Ravenel was saying now. She zigzagged off the woodland path and into a clearing. “Do you have sisters, Mother?”

I have never known a nun to dart about so, thought Mother Malloy, struggling to keep up with her guide. They taught us to glide and keep custody of the limbs in the Boston novitiate. Perhaps religious formation is another thing they “do differently” in the South. The accent is melodious, but somehow it doesn’t lend itself to gravity.

“Except for my sisters in the Order, none, Mother.”

“Ah, same as myself. I grew up with two older brothers. I was the baby sister. You had brothers, perhaps?”

“No, no brothers, either.”

“An only child. That has its advantages. For instance, I could never go off by myself and read and daydream, as I imagine you could. My beastly brothers were always dragging me up into their tree houses or out on their boats. We lived on the East Battery, in Charleston.”

“You were saying about these girls—the rising ninth grade?” Kate Malloy had been raised in a Catholic foster home in West Newton, near Boston, but saw no point in tempting Mother Ravenel into further asides. “Their challenging aspects?”

“Yes, well, my point was, all girls are challenging at that age. They’re sensitive and acute and they have a cruel streak—a different cruelty from boys, has been my experience—and a shocking amount of energy. Their bodies are ready for childbirth, but their cognitive development isn’t complete yet. You have only to recall your own feelings at fourteen. You felt you were capable of making your own life decisions. You felt that most adults, besides being over the hill, had compromised themselves and were to be pitied rather than listened to. Am I right?”

No, but you’re my superior. “I was lucky to have several adults I truly admired. What I do recall feeling is wishing I could spend more time with them.”

“Ah, mentors, you mean. But a mentor is not in the same category as your average compromised adult, wouldn’t you agree? And since you have brought up the subject of mentors, Mother, that’s exactly what I’m praying these girls will find in you. Their specialty is intimidation. In sixth grade they demoralized a popular lay teacher. I’ll supply the gory details later, but right now, I want you to take in Mount St. Gabriel’s picturesque view. It’s at its most sublime from here. That’s why we chose this site for the new athletic field, even though the excavation and tree-topping costs completely wrecked our budget.”

Mother Malloy took in the vista from this place into which her vow of obedience had so abruptly landed her. In three weeks she was to have begun her second year of graduate work at Boston College. But a week ago Reverend Mother had summoned her. “I know it’s a great disappointment, my dear, but Mother Ravenel down at Mount St. Gabriel’s is in a bind. The junior college lost their shorthand-and-typing mistress, a young novice who has asked to be released from her vows, and Mother Sharp, who normally takes the ninth grade, is the only one qualified to teach secretarial courses. Offer it up to Our Lord, and we’ll see if we can arrange for you to come back to Boston for summer courses.”

The spot on which Mother Malloy and Mother Ravenel stood commanded a panorama of mountain ranges stacked one behind the other, their hues fading from deep smoky purple into the milk blue of the horizon. Below them was Mountain City, its downtown buildings and curving river twinkling with late-afternoon sun. A solitary hawk dipped and soared, riding the air streams above them. Mother Malloy was in the midst of composing a suitable line of praise for the school’s picturesque view when Mother Ravenel, off on another tack, rendered the effort unnecessary.

“And next year we will be taking on the boys.”

“The boys?”

“Newman Hall for grades one through eight, and Maturin Hall for the high school. Though there’s still some lobbying going on about calling the upper grades ‘forms,’ like the prep schools and the English public schools. If you look over through those pines, you can see the slate roof of what will be Newman, when the renovations are finished.”

Mother Malloy followed the tanned pointing finger. She took in the gabled roof; she also took in the headmistress’s youthful, well-kept hands. The older nun’s silver ring flashed in the sunlight.

“What will be Newman and Maturin were lovely adjoining estates. Within a single year they were left to us by two cousins: grateful mothers of satisfied alumnae. I told the bishop, I said, ‘We must be doing something right at Mount St. Gabriel’s.’ His nose was a little out of joint because the properties were deeded to us, the Order of St. Scholastica, and not to the diocese. Isn’t this a grand athletic field? When the boys come, we’ll put in goalposts for football. Howard, our handyman, is so proud of the turf and of his new tractor mower that we have to restrain him from mowing twice a week. Only yesterday I told him, ‘Howard, this is not a golf course,’ but I can see and smell perfectly well that it has been mowed again since. What sports did you play, Mother Malloy?”

“I can’t say I played anything well, but I liked swimming in the ocean. And badminton as a teenager.”

“I still crave a set of tennis, even with the restraints of the habit. Do you play tennis?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“I could coach you. What a treat, to have someone to play with besides Miss Farber, our gym teacher, who never has time for more than a game. You’re still young enough to learn properly, and we’d be equally handicapped with our long skirts and veils.”

“What sports do the girls in the academy play?”

“Everyone gets basketball, tennis, volleyball, and modern dance. We also offer gymnastics, ballroom, ballet and tap, and horseback riding, but for those, additional fees are required. There’s a movement afoot by the parents, abetted by Miss Farber, to open up the indoor pool—Mount St. Gabriel’s was a famous mountain resort in the Victorian era—and have swimming for the upper grades. Reverend Mother, who likes to make people happy, seems to be leaning that way. Being of a more practical nature, I have to consider the wet hair, the monthly period excuses, and the girls’ uncharitable appraisals of one another’s figures. Your rising ninth grade has made the critique of others into a high form of torture.”

“Is there a ringleader?”

“That’s a good first question. It was my first question, back when they were sixth graders and their, shall we say, effects began taking their toll on others.”

“What happened in sixth grade?”

At Mother Ravenel’s brisk pace they had already walked half the length of the athletic field, and Mother Malloy found herself slightly out of breath.

“We lost a devoted lay teacher who’d been with us for twenty-two years. Mrs. Prince taught arithmetic from grades six through eight and home economics in the academy and junior college. She was much loved, especially by the older girls.”

“Lost her—how?”

“After three months with the sixth grade that will be your ninth grade, she resigned. She told Reverend Mother she felt she was getting thin-skinned and could no longer keep discipline. She also said that ‘little girls seemed to be changing into something different.’ We begged her to stay on, at least for home economics with the older girls, but she said she had begun to shake and feel sick at her stomach as soon as she drove through our entrance gates every morning, so we had to honor her wishes. She’s since become a substitute teacher in the public school system.”

“What did they do, the sixth grade?”

“Well, for a start, Mrs. Prince liked to bring homemade fudge to school. After the girls had done their lessons well, she’d pass it around and read to them from Uncle Remus. Until one day when she was passing it around to the sixth graders and girl after girl turned her down. Very politely, of course; they had all manner of excuses. ‘Thank you so much, Mrs. Prince, but I’ve just found out I’m allergic to chocolate’ . . . ‘Thank you, Mrs. Prince, but I’m on a diet’ . . . ‘Thank you, but I’m not hungry, Mrs. Prince.’ One girl even said she was fasting!”

“The entire class turned down the fudge?”

“Oh, there were some holdouts. But they got fewer each time. Finally she stopped bringing fudge to school for any of the classes.”

“And the readings that accompanied the fudge? Did they continue?”

“Ah, that was their next target. Do you know the Uncle Remus stories? No? Up there in Yankeeland, I guess not. Joel Chandler Harris was an Atlanta newspaperman who wrote humorous adaptations of the folktales of Negro slaves. Dealing chiefly with animals like Brer Rabbit, who has a cunning instinct for survival and is always outwitting his enemies. Uncle Remus was the old slave who narrated the stories, and Mrs. Prince had the dialect down pat. When she did the different animals’ voices you were in stitches. ‘Oh, please, Brer Fox, don’t throw me into that briar patch!’?”

“You heard her read?”

“Why, yes, many a time. I laughed myself out of my chair the first time. I’d just come to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a boarder. She was our seventh-grade math teacher.”

“You were a student here?”

“Indeed I was. I was in the class of ’34. In my time, the state didn’t have an eighth grade. You went from seventh grade into the academy. Oh, I should also tell you, three of your ninth graders have mothers from our class of ’34, and two of the girls share an aunt. At first it was going to be just two mothers and an aunt, but now Chloe Starnes, whose mother died tragically this past spring, will be joining us as a boarder. What she will add to the mix, who can predict? Her mother, Agnes, was a well-thought-of girl—I admired Agnes Vick, though we were not close. Young Chloe seems a more interior sort—though, of course, she’s in deep mourning right now. Her uncle, Henry Vick, Agnes’s brother, is a prominent architect in town—right now he’s designing the new public library—and he’s a staunch supporter of the school. But add to that—well, you see, Chloe’s uncle Henry was married to the aunt I mentioned—a dreadful thing; Antonia Tilden was killed in a traffic accident on their honeymoon in Rome. Henry has never remarried. Antonia was my best friend at Mount St. Gabriel’s. And, you see, by her marriage to Henry, she is also Chloe’s aunt, or late aunt, as well as Tildy Stratton’s. Cornelia, Tildy’s mother, and Antonia were identical twins.”

Mother Malloy’s mind was now a vertiginous whirl of aunts, uncles, mothers, identical twins, friendships, tragedies, and accidents, all of which she must match to individual girls she hadn’t even met. Also she was feeling light-headed from the walk.

“What did the girls do—about the Uncle Remus readings?”

“Well, first they stopped laughing. And then they stopped smiling. As a group. They just faced front and stared straight ahead. They stopped looking at Mrs. Prince when she read to them. And then they stopped looking at her when she taught them math.”

“It’s hard to imagine little girls being so organized in their cruelty. Surely there must be a leader, or a few main girls.”

“Of course there’s always a core of leadership. And every class has its main girls. I could rattle off some names, though you’ll quickly be able to pick them out for yourself. I’d rather you rely on your own instincts, Mother Malloy. Provide us with the fresh view of someone coming in from the outside. I’m such a dyed-in-the-wool Mount St. Gabriel’s girl—I entered the Order as a postulant during my senior year. There may be something here I’m not seeing because it’s been staring me in the face the whole time. After all, I was in the same class with some of the mothers and aunts. And as I said, one of them, poor Tony, was my dearest friend.”

“I hope I—”

“And here are the steps leading up to our grotto. It’s lovely and cool up there, an ideal spot for meditation and just turning things over to the Blessed Mother. You’ll be meeting all of your girls on registration day, but now it’s time for you to see our beautiful Della Robbia and meet our Red Nun."

She has the face of an alabaster saint, the headmistress was thinking, sprinting ahead up the winding stone steps to the grotto. The vigorous swish of her habit set the giant ferns on either side bowing and swaying, like obeisant minions.

Yet she seems unaware of her beauty. And she’s less commanding than I was given to expect. But the looks alone will carry her—they’ll have nothing to criticize there—until they locate her weak spots.

Is she panting? In her early twenties and already short of breath after our little climb? I’m her senior by more than a decade and feel as fit as I did as a girl when I foot-raced my brothers on the beach. Probably our academy up in Boston doesn’t put enough of a premium on exercise. And of course there’s their colder weather, and they’re located right in town.

I will coach her in tennis. It will loosen her up a little. Put some color in her cheeks; she’s way too pale. There’s something almost Quakerish about her. Not easy to draw out. In conversation she reminds me of a hound dog, intent on retrieving a single bird at a time.

“Oh—!”

Now she’s gone and turned her ankle or something! “What is it, Mother?”

“A baby rabbit.” The young nun was crouched on the path, raptly squinting through a thicket of old rhododendrons. The fringed sash of her habit trailed in the undergrowth.

“Oh, if it’s rabbits you want, we’ve got them by the dozens, the procreative little creatures. Mother Finney, our cellaress, finally had to get Howard to build her a chain-link fence around the vegetable garden.”

“I’ve never seen a brown one before.”

“I can tell you’re going to enjoy your forest walks. Mount St. Gabriel’s has thirty acres of woodlands and riding paths just teeming with wildlife. You name it, we’ve got it: wild turkeys, great horned owls, hawks, bobcats, foxes in both red and gray, and of course raccoons and skunks and possums and an oversupply of rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels. Not so many black bears anymore, though in late spring almost every year, a girl will come flying in to report that she thinks she spotted one.”

“What is a bobcat?”

“Basically just a smaller-sized wildcat that sounds exactly like a house cat when it vocalizes. They’re tan with black spots. Jovan, who met you at the station, found an abandoned bob-kitten and took it home to raise it. But it gnawed its way out of its box and was so spiteful and snappish to his children he brought it back to the woods.”

Talk about “vocalizing”—I am worn out with my own. People with no small talk are exhausting; you’re obliged to carry the whole load yourself. Well, maybe she’s just taking it all in, showing respect. I am her immediate superior, after all. Reverend Mother in Boston said she was a first-rate graduate assistant at Boston College. Students work hard to impress her, and she puts up with no foolishness. How odd that Reverend Mother had said nothing about the striking good looks. “I think you’ll find her effective” was all she volunteered. Well, Lord, You always provide more than I know to ask for. These supercritical girls will be subdued by their teacher’s beauty—at least until they have time to ferret out her vulnerabilities, of which I suspect there are some.

“Not much farther, now, Mother Malloy. The grotto is just up around the next turn.”

I sound like I sound when I’m showing parents of prospective students around the grounds. I don’t have to sell her on the school—she already belongs to us!

Mother Malloy continued to call on her filtering powers to stanch the overflow of information and the competing new sights and sensations. First the rambling eighty-bedroom Victorian edifice, the former hotel, complete with its tower and gables and porches, in which she was to live. Her third-story bedroom, in which Mother Ravenel had allowed her a half-hour respite (she lay down as soon as she was alone, putting off unpacking until later), looked down upon a sunny inner courtyard where one black woman peeled vegetables and another hung laundry. And now the rustling presences of this primeval woodland setting, and the discovery of her own breathlessness, new to her at age twenty-four, as she climbed up and up. Her skin was damp beneath her habit, and perspiration trickled down the back of her neck. As the train had pulled into the station, a banner on the depot had announced “Welcome to the Land of the Sky. You are now ONE MILE above sea level!”

The headmistress seemed never to have need to pause for breath, nipping round the edges of Howard’s too-often-mowed athletic field and dashing up the steep woodland steps, discoursing on everything from extracurricular fees to the unfortunate Mrs. Prince and the coil of all these histories leading to the unpredictable chemical mix of the rising ninth grade.

Help me, PLEASE, to listen and hear without making premature judgments. Later You will help me discern between the significant and the interesting. Or the merely diverting.

In the meantime, please help me not to be overwhelmed.

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Foreword

1. In Mother Ravenel’s 2001 reflections on Mount St. Gabriel’s, how does she foreshadow the events that transpire in the “toxic year” of 1951? By the end of Unfinished Desires, do you think she’s reconciled herself to this “year better forgotten”? Does she “prevail”? Does she leave anything “undone”?

2. Who is the Red Nun? How does the myth and tragedy of her origin shape, sustain, and “protect” the Mount St. Gabriel’s community?

3. What is “holy daring” as Mother Elizabeth Wallingford, foundress of Mount St. Gabriel’s, conceived it? Discuss how Mother Ravenel interprets and relates “holy daring” and “a woman’s freedom in God.”

4. How and why does Mother Malloy, at Madeline’s urging, encourage Tildy to keep her “intrepid little soul”? Does her diligent tutoring change Tildy?
 
5. Why does Mother Ravenel place Tildy in charge of the freshman class revival of the Red Nun play? Does she ultimately regret this decision?

6. What is Agnes’s “mortal mistake”? Do you think she anticipated her own untimely death? Why or why not? Is Chloe really “haunted” by her mother?
  
7. Tildy understands that “best friends have been known to do hurtful things to each other.” Does this explain why Suzanne Ravenel decides to enter as a postulant without her best friend, Antonia? If not, why did she “jump the gun on [her] vocation”? 
 
8. Do you agree with Tildy that “some girls are just alwaysbackground” and “some girls just stand out”? How does Chloe counter Tildy’s argument? Why doesn’t Chloe unveil her “masterpiece” to the class?

9. Discuss the impact of Cornelia Stratton’s “dry ice” comments on those she loves. How does her “caustic tongue” influence her daughters? Her sister, Antonia? Mother Ravenel? 
 
10. Consider Tildy and Maud’s friendship from its beginning and from each girl’s perspective. How does their friendship evolve? Is it, like each of them, a “work in progress”? How do their perceptions of each other change? How would you define their relationship at the end of the novel?

11. Reading David Copperfield for Mother Malloy’s class, Maud is introduced to the idea that “someone else’s story, if told a certain way, could make you ache as though it were your own.” Do you identify strongly with one particular character’s story in Unfinished Desires? Which one(s)?

12. Discuss the importance and power of secrets in Unfinished Desires. How do they serve to either unite or isolate those who tell them and those whom they are about?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. In Mother Ravenel’s 2001 reflections on Mount St. Gabriel’s, how does she foreshadow the events that transpire in the “toxic year” of 1951? By the end of Unfinished Desires, do you think she’s reconciled herself to this “year better forgotten”? Does she “prevail”? Does she leave anything “undone”?

2. Who is the Red Nun? How does the myth and tragedy of her origin shape, sustain, and “protect” the Mount St. Gabriel’s community?

3. What is “holy daring” as Mother Elizabeth Wallingford, foundress of Mount St. Gabriel’s, conceived it? Discuss how Mother Ravenel interprets and relates “holy daring” and “a woman’s freedom in God.”

4. How and why does Mother Malloy, at Madeline’s urging, encourage Tildy to keep her “intrepid little soul”? Does her diligent tutoring change Tildy?
 
5. Why does Mother Ravenel place Tildy in charge of the freshman class revival of the Red Nun play? Does she ultimately regret this decision?

6. What is Agnes’s “mortal mistake”? Do you think she anticipated her own untimely death? Why or why not? Is Chloe really “haunted” by her mother?
  
7. Tildy understands that “best friends have been known to do hurtful things to each other.” Does this explain why Suzanne Ravenel decides to enter as a postulant without her best friend, Antonia? If not, why did she “jump the gun on [her] vocation”? 
 
8. Do you agree with Tildy that “some girls are just always background” and “some girls just stand out”? How does Chloe counter Tildy’s argument? Why doesn’t Chloe unveil her “masterpiece” to the class?

9. Discuss the impact of Cornelia Stratton’s “dry ice” comments on those she loves. How does her “caustic tongue” influence her daughters? Her sister, Antonia? Mother Ravenel? 
 
10. Consider Tildy and Maud’s friendship from its beginning and from each girl’s perspective. How does their friendship evolve? Is it, like each of them, a “work in progress”? How do their perceptions of each other change? How would you define their relationship at the end of the novel?

11. Reading David Copperfield for Mother Malloy’s class, Maud is introduced to the idea that “someone else’s story, if told a certain way, could make you ache as though it were your own.” Do you identify strongly with one particular character’s story in Unfinished Desires? Which one(s)?

12. Discuss the importance and power of secrets in Unfinished Desires. How do they serve to either unite or isolate those who tell them and those whom they are about?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 17 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(2)

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(5)

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 19 of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 23, 2010

    Interesting look into developing lives of different generations

    Interesting read with compelling characters. I liked the transitions from the 50's to 2001 and current time, along with earlier recall of the 1920's. Different time frames weave together to show influence on each generation. I rarely find a character in a book that I intensely dislike, but Mother Ravenel is one such character, which means the author did a superb job in developing her. She is narcissistic and power-hungry throughout her life, never really recognizing her harm to others in protecting herself (in the name of the school). The pace of the book starts a little slow, but I was so interested that I didn't mind the slow build. Great discussion book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2013

    OMG MYYYYY LAST NAME IS GODWIN

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  • Posted July 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    intriguing character study

    In 2001, Mother Suzanne Ravenel begins taping her memories of fifty plus years of teaching at Mount Saint Gabriel's School in Mountain City, North Carolina. Looking back at her time in Appalachian Mountains school, she has fond memories of some classes like that of '74 and the 1930s when she attended the school as a student.

    However, the class that sticks out in her head was the most horrific, 1951-52. The year of toxicity started with the arrival of ninth-grader Chloe Starnes, who was grieving her mother who had just died. Young Mother Malloy was assigned to the freshman class. Chloe's cousin Tildy Stratton becomes her BFF. However, she is uninformed as to her manipulative cousin picking up her mom Cordelia's vendetta against Mother Suzanne.

    This is an intriguing character study that uses the memories of Mother Suzanne to tell the story of feuding people. The engine that drives the story line is Cordelia rather than Mother Suzanne; which adds to the depth the audience sees of the prime cast; years after the two key events that shaped their animosity occurred. Although too many tertiary players crowd the stage at times, Gail Godwin provides an interesting drama.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Posted March 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Seemed Promising...

    This book was hard to get into because of the slow, detailed pace. The whole book was leading up to disclosing some huge secret/scandal but it took forever to get there. I love reading, but this book turned into a chore for me.

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  • Posted February 3, 2010

    Very misleading

    Neither the dust jacket nor any of the reviews I read indicate that this book is about an all girls CATHOLIC school and has to do with nuns, priests, etc. I read just a few pages and put it in my pile to donate to the library.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2010

    one main problem

    When I bought this book, I didn't realize it was 100% Catholicism. So if you like stories about nuns, catholic schools and such, you might like this book. I read a few chapters and knew I'd never pick it up again.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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