Priests and nuns who fail in their promises to be perfect models of morality are more than disappointing. When they fall short in living up to their feigned image, the revelation can be more devastating than if they had not taken religious vows – you expect better of them.
Mix this with teenage girls, confined in an all girls’ Catholic boarding school, and you have ignition. In her latest novel, Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin mixes volatile teenage girls with nuns still wearing those restrictive habits, a metaphor for promoting the hide-everything habits of the nineteen fifties.
Suzanne Ravenel tells the story as an aged resident of the convent home where old nuns go to die. As she tapes her recollections of the Mount St. Gabriel’s School where she started as a student and ended as the Mother Superior, her sins of pride, manipulation, jealousy and vengeance slowly unravel. Even sex becomes a whispered intention. The energetic Mother Ravenel’s motives were not always holy.
Godwin uses Tildy Stratton and Chloe Starnes as the freshmen students under the raving Ravenel, who stir the pot. Tildy is distantly related to the Mother Superior; she and Chloe are cousins. But then, the story takes place in the South – and “everyone is related in the South.”
The story ambles along slowly, repeating scenes and reiterating the relationships among the characters – their familial as well as vindictive ties. At times, you will think you have read the paragraphs before in a previous chapter, and you probably have. As Ravenel writes her history of the school, the tease is the promise of a horrid plot enacted by the class of ’52 (Tildy and Chloe) that caused Mother Ravenel to take a year off to recuperate.
Godwin inserts the infamous 9/11 news as Ravenel reaches a breakthrough in her writing; amazingly, the news warrants only a page – possibly a comment that Ravenel’s personal trauma holds more weight for her than the tragedy of strangers.
The story line is trite and overwrought with petty drama. But Godwin expertly captures teenage girls with their inner angst at a time when thirteen year-olds are struggling with hormones and rebellion – yet still quavering on the edge of submitting to adult authority. Godwin clearly examines how the breakthrough from authority can be ugly, and how girls at that age can be cruel – mostly to each other.
As the story reaches its climax, embellished legends are stripped to reality; saints become sinners, and the metaphor for the false mask of religiosity in the Catholic Church is hard to ignore. The reputation of the devout patron saint on which the school was founded has conveniently been doctored. On the other hand, you might just enjoy the juicy melodrama, and keep the faith.
The ending never seems to come; Godwin is determined to take each character to completion – all the way into old age. In this case, following teenagers into old age is overkill – more than you want to know, but every single thread is tied at the end.
If you suffered through Catholic school and had the distinction of surviving indoctrination by the nuns, you will mostly appreciate the portraits of the women behind the veil. They are, after all, just human – but it is disappointing to find that out.