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The Confessions of Frances Godwin: A Novel Hardcover – July 8, 2014


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620405490
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620405499
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Art conservators, college professors, avocado wholesalers, an elephant who paints, blues musicians, snake-handlers, Latin teachers, truck drivers—novelist Robert Hellenga writes about all kinds of people. His books are very different, as that list of characters’ occupations suggests, but they are similar, too, with themes reoccurring like motifs in a fugue: Italy, the nature of beauty, love found and lost, and the rhythms of daily life, which are somehow sustaining both in their intimacy and in their very ordinariness. His latest novel and one of his best, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, incorporates all of these themes while telling a story very different from anything he has done before. Hellenga, who teaches English at Knox College in downstate Illinois, is one of those writers who inspire a special kind of devotion in their readers. When two Hellenga fans encounter one another and learn of their shared enthusiasm, something happens that’s not unlike members of a secret society exchanging funny handshakes. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Hellenga’s first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures (1994), about art conservator Margo Harrington, who reappears in Philosophy Made Simple (2006) and The Italian Lover (2007). In Sixteen Pleasures, Margo is a 29-year-old woman of limited experience who travels to Florence to help with the restoration of art treasures damaged in the great floods of 1966. Living in a convent, she stumbles upon a rare volume of erotica in the convent library and subsequently tumbles into an affair with an older and supremely sophisticated Italian man. The novel is a sumptuous and sensual love story, but it’s also, as Hellenga has described it, an “occupational story,” in that the most sensual passages in the book describe Margo’s detailed, loving work on the pieces of art she helps restore. Above all, though, the novel introduces Hellenga’s great theme of the melancholy transience of love. The lovers in Hellenga’s moving, profound novels do not live in a world of conventional happy endings. His romances often end in attenuated moments of both disappointment and tenderness, partings that have the feel not of failed relationships but of life moving on and working out as it must. The theme reappears in Snakewoman of Little Egypt (2010), about a young woman named Sunny, who grew up in a snake-handling church in Illinois’ Little Egypt area and who falls in love with an anthropology professor, Jackson, entranced by her stories of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following. Jackson and Sunny dance between the “safe harbor” of their life together and “the wider sea of courage, risk, and adventure,” each teaching the other about the many forms of joie de vivre. Yes, it is a melancholy story, but it is also immensely satisfying and even uplifting in that unique way that only deeply felt life can provide. That same sense of deeply felt life pervades Hellenga’s new book. Frances Godwin is a retired high-school Latin teacher looking back at her life with her late husband, Paul, and musing over wrong turns taken and roads untraveled. With marriage and career behind her, she assumes that her life is winding down but quickly learns differently, as she comes to the aid of her daughter, trapped in an abusive marriage. What happens is shocking—the world of decisive action suddenly interrupting the quiet of a contemplative life—but it isn’t the action that drives the story but Frances’ attempts to make sense of it. She calls her story a “spiritual autobiography,” and despite being anything but pious, she engages in ongoing conversations with God, who turns out to be quite a wily fellow. Frances wants desperately to believe that “the universe itself cares,” but what if it doesn’t? That’s the question she grapples with in the most compelling of terms, never blandly abstract, always grounded in the particulars of the everyday. And it is in those particulars that Frances finally approaches some inevitably tentative answers, or what pass for answers in a world defined by change: “That’s the problem with autobiography,” she reflects. “You see a shape, you see ups and downs, conversions, turning points, reversals. But then you keep on living, . . . and every time you look down on your life, you see a different shape.” The beauty of this novel and, in fact, of all of Hellenga’s work, lies in the scrupulous attention he pays to those different shapes that life takes. Like Frances, we find in their very concreteness a way of living with the uncertainty that surrounds us. --Bill Ott

Review

"I stayed up all night with Robert Hellenga’s beguiling schoolteacher-murderer and her talkative God, and will now re-read at leisure to savor this author’s usual grace notes: music, recipes, learning, philosophy, and travel. The Confessions of Frances Godwin is Hellenga’s most audacious fling at just about everything in our culture." —Gail Godwin, author of Flora

"Robert Hellenga is a great storyteller and a most elegant writer. The Confessions of Frances Godwin is a page-turner that made me want to linger on the page." —Hilma Wolitzer, author of An Available Man  

"As enjoyable as it is profound, The Confessions of Frances Godwin tackles our most unanswerable questions as only a novel can—not by answering them but by exploring the reasons why we ask in the first place. This is the sort of rare book where the familiar starts to look brand-new, and a reader comes to understand that faith is as much about how one sees as it is about what one believes." —Peter Orner, author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

"His latest novel [is] one of his best . . . Hellenga . . . is one of those writers who inspire a special kind of devotion in their readers . . . The beauty of this novel and, in fact, of all of Hellenga’s work, lies in the scrupulous attention he pays to those different shapes that life takes. Like Frances, we find in their very concreteness a way of living with the uncertainty that surrounds us." —Booklist, special feature starred review

"Hellenga's fiesty and learned narrator, who travels from the Casa di  Giulietta in Verona to TruckStopUSA in Ottawa, is an entertaining guide." —Publishers Weekly

"In this highly original novel exploring the hidden depths of one older woman, Hellenga (The Sixteen Pleasures) shows that he is a writer who deserves to be more widely known." —Library Journal

"Hellenga neatly balances the pallet trucks of the wholesale produce business with the idiosyncrasies of translating the ribald poetry of Catullus . . . Although the story ranges wide, The Confessions of Frances Godwin is firmly rooted in the culture and values of Hellenga’s perfectly rendered Midwest." —Shelf Awareness

"Hellenga creates a teacher you will wish you had studied with, and a character to remember." —Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

"Gripping and unpredictable . . . . The Confessions of Frances Godwin both sums up and surpasses Hellenga’s body of work. This is a story of maturity by maturity for maturity, written with subtlety, deep learning, and wisdom." —Mary Doria Russell, The Washington Post

Customer Reviews

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Robert Hellenga writes with passion and his characters come to life.
janice
A book that makes me think is always a good book in my opinion and this one certainly kept me thinking several days after I finished reading it.
savy shopper
Robert Hellenga is that rare author for whom it's impossible to pick a favorite of his books - they're unique and all excellent.
Sara

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Timothy J. Bazzett on July 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover
First things first: I LOVED THIS BOOK!! I know, caps and exclamation points - I sound like a teenage girl. But I'm a guy, and I'm more than fifty years past teenage. But Robert Hellenga's newest novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANCES GODWIN, was just so damn good I couldn't believe it. Well, yes I could, because I've already read three other Hellenga novels over the past fifteen years or so - The Sixteen Pleasures: A Novel, Blues Lessons: A Novel, and Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel - and they were all great.

But CONFESSIONS may well be Hellenga's best book yet. I think this one is truly a labor of love. The story is set in Galesburg, home of Knox College, where Hellenga taught English for decades and is now a Professor Emeritus and writer-in-residence. The town, lovingly mapped and described, is so important to the story that it practically becomes a character. The title character grew up on a farm nearby and attended Knox College, where she met her husband, Paul Godwin, her Shakespeare teacher (married to someone else at the time).

Galesburg, Milwaukee, Rome, Verona. All important places to Frances Godwin. Parts of her life both with Paul and later with her troubled daughter Stella and by herself. Faith, art, music, life itself. All the big questions are in here, and maybe some answers too. I'm not going to do any plot summaries here.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 8, 2014
Format: Hardcover
If I were to identify a book that snuck up and bit me, this would be the one. I remember, when I read Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD, feeling immediately that I was in the presence of a great author. With Hellenga's novel, (and this is my first by him), I was instantly engaged, but it wasn't until the halfway point that I realized how stunning this book was, and consequential.

Frances lives with ongoing doubt regarding her faith. She's from a strait-laced Polish Catholic family in small-town Illinois, her mother especially traditional. But Frances sought to be a scholar, which creates a more expansive intellect--and with that comes dubiety. In the 60's,when she has an affair with her college Shakespeare professor, Paul, she tries to shake him off before her two-month trip to Rome to study spoken Latin. Later, she marries him, but not until after their daughter, Stella, was born (Paul had to get a divorce first). That's two transgressions right there!

The first-person narrative is intimate and palpable, as if Frances is talking directly to you. It is laid out like a confessional memoir, which she calls a spiritual autobiography.

"All narrators are first-person narrators. You can't get ironic distance from yourself, can't see around yourself, can't know more than you know."

As the confessions progress, the tension rises. The erudition isn't distracting--rather, the allusions piqued my interest, while adding texture and depth to the story. Everything from Latin, the Classics, Shakespeare, opera, classical music, and piano tuning is folded in neatly and compellingly. The events that cause colossal self-doubt, guilt about her last months with Paul, guilt about not having guilt, and concern for Stella adds piercing poignancy.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 10, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The "Confessions" of the title are both general and specific. General, in the sense of a tell-all autobiography looking back on a long life. Specific, in the Catholic sense of spiritual confession to a priest. Frances Godwin, retired Illinois Latin teacher and lapsed Catholic, makes two such confessions in the book, both in Rome, forty-three years apart. The first, at the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, is when she is a recent graduate, trying to get over her affair with a married professor. By the time of the second, late in the book, she has been a widow for many years, and has more to confess, much more. Indeed, the formal sacrament of confessing to the priest is only the culmination of a long series of conversations with God himself (they speak in Latin, naturally) that occupy much of the middle section of the novel. Remarkably secular conversations, as it happens; God gives her everything from explanations of quantum mechanics to warnings about the coming financial crisis. Frances is happy to talk, but remains resolutely unshriven until her sudden decision to return to Rome (metaphorically as well as literally) at the end. The surname that Hellenga has given her, God-win, is no coincidence.

If this sounds excessively fanciful, be reassured. Robert Hellenga has a remarkable power of getting into the mind of his female protagonist, especially an older one, as she deals with the problems of looking after an ailing husband, widowhood, retirement, and a grown daughter who cannot seem to find her way through life. He also has sly fun with the contradictions in her personality: this dusty old Latin teacher is also working on a translation of Catullus, the most racy of Latin poets.
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