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Unfinished Desires: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – July 27, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"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

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Random House Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (July 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345483219
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345483218
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #969,706 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gail Godwin is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including Unfinished Desires, 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 62 people found the following review helpful By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a mature, adult book about adolescent girl behavior. Not since Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye have I read such a powerful novel about teenage feminine conformity, coercion, betrayal, jealousy, secrets, and love. Godwin creates a labyrinth that begins with a simple layer and gradually builds to a complex and knotted snare. I was pulled in from the opening pages as this rich, multi-generational tapestry is woven as if from the loom. The book never loses steam, and the lyrical rhythm amplifies as the story builds. Godwin designed an absolutely beautiful brocade of a book. She sublimely and organically explores the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious layers of the human mind and all its dark and light attributes while she braids a tale of intrigue, desire, and loss from the fabric of memory.

The central narrative is the school year of 1951-52 at a Catholic boarding school, Mount St. Gabriel's, in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Mother "Suzanne" Ravenel, age 85, is reaching back and writing her memoir in 2001 of her time as a student and then headmistress of the now defunct school. She is plagued by events that occurred that one year, especially after her freshman girls staged the annual spring play and brought buried secrets into the performance. She feels stuck and unable to write about that time. Memories--how they are interpreted and relived and revived by the people who remember them--that is the primary theme that this intricate web and convoluted story is built upon.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Set in a prestigious girls' boarding school run by nuns in the 1950s, Gail Godwin's novel has a cloistered feel. Not that the action (such as it is) does not often move off campus; many of the main characters are day students. But the girls' families seem just as much a closed circle as the nuns are, a hermetic quality enhanced by the fact that several of the mothers were friends at the same school two decades earlier, and the families have intermarried in complex ways. Read the long paragraph on page 9 that introduces the various characters several times over before moving on, and bookmark it for further reference; you will need it.

I did, however, like it that Godwin constantly switches her time frame over an eight-decade span. The container, set in 2001, is the taped narrative of Mother Ravenel, recalling her years as headmistress of the school, Mount St. Gabriel's in North Carolina, in the middle years of the century. Most of the detail comes from 1951-52, which the headmistress refers to as the "toxic year," when a particular combination of high-school freshmen triggered a chain of events that resulted in scandal and expulsions. There are also memories of the school in the thirties, when Suzanne Ravenel herself was a student, and her relationship with several of the mothers of the 1951 crop may well have sown the seeds for later discord. The last few chapters suddenly plunge into 2007 and 2008, covering fifty years of lives led in the outside world; these are a relief from the glacial pace of non-events in the main narrative, but they come too late.

So what is it that made 1951-52 so toxic? Surprisingly little. The girls, despite their human teenage flaws, are attractive and interesting, and what they get up to is little more than petty acting out.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Gail Godwin's latest carefully crafted novel takes a close look at a group of girls matriculating through a Catholic boarding school in the early 1950s. There are no cheap tricks or shocking plot twists; rather, this is a tightly restrained examination of the various manifestations of often incendiary relationships between women: mothers and daughters, teachers and students, and the perhaps most of all, adolescent girls.

The novel masterfully straddles the past and the present; the conceit is that Mother Ravenel, the former headmistress, has chosen to write a memoir about Mount St. Gabriel, the prestigious boarding school located in North Carolina. Her memories bring her back to one pivotal moment: an incident that resulted in the expulsion of two students and her own leave of absence.

Ms. Godwin's mastery of the Catholic religion -- minus the preachiness that is often found in some lesser writers -- is evident. Mother Ravenel and her newest hire, the ethereal ninth grade teacher Mother Malloy, partially choose their vocation because of the desire for exemption. "I didn't want to be like my mother raising seven kids and sipping cheap sherry. I wanted to be like a certain nun I admired, standing in front of a classroom teaching belonging to no one but an invisible spouse," Mother Ravenel confesses.

But is her calling really pure? There are hints early on about her love for her best friend Antonia who also wanted to take vows. That friend ended up marrying and dying early; her identical twin sister Cornelia has never forgiven her. Now Cornelia's own daughter is under her tutelage -- Tildy Stratton, the high-spirited and dyslexic ringleader of her class and her sometime own best friend, Maud Norton, a girl who may be growing up too fast.
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