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The Confessions of Frances Godwin: A Novel Hardcover – July 8, 2014
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Pre-order today
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*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
“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
“One heck of a plot . . . Hellenga, the famously philosophical novelist . . . is ‘inclined,' he recently wrote on his blog, ‘to accept the accumulated wisdom of the ancient near East' but . . . ‘can't entirely abandon the quest for some larger meaning.' It is this quest for meaning that this latest book, like much of Hellenga's work, is all about.” ―Chicago Tribune
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In fact, if the book had continued in that vein, it would have quickly become one of my favorites. But then the character makes an uncharacteristic decision. It’s impossible to write about without spoilers, so here it is: YOUR SPOILER ALERT.
Frances Godwin (the last name gives you a big clue where this is going) is a high school Latin teacher who marries Paul, her professor with whom she has had an affair. Together, they build a life that revolves around erudite pursuits that range from a passion for ancient studies to classic music and Shakespearean theater. Their daughter Stella, an aspiring poet, is the apple that DOES fall far from the tree: after a series of bad relationships, she ends up with a real hum-dinger, a former felon named Jimmy who is a menace to all those around him – including Stella and her parents. After Paul dies, the abuse on Stella escalates and Frances decides to take matters into her own hands and murder Jimmy. She succeeds.
Up until this point, I was reading breathlessly, devouring 150 pages at one sitting. But Jimmy’s murder was a stretch for me. Jimmy is about as one-dimensional as I’ve ever seen in a character: surly and predatory without redeeming qualities. And Stella? I know little about her (and Frances’ relationship with her) prior to her pairing with Jimmy. I do know I had a visceral reaction to her actions, which included not even attending her father’s funeral. With little sympathy or empathy for Stella, it’s hard for me to truly feel for Frances’s choice.
But even if I did empathize: Frances had other options available to her. Stella’s close friend Ruthy knows of thugs who will gladly “deliver a message” to Jimmy that he won’t soon forget. Let’s face it, it’s HARD for the vast majority of us to commit murder, even if it’s justified. It’s even harder for someone raised as a Catholic who knows the act will cause eternal damnation. Nothing about Frances’s background convinced me that she was capable of the act.
Yet, this book – this spiritual autobiography was not devoid of surprises. As Mr. Hellenga writes, “You can’t quite see everything from where you’re standing. You see a shape, you see ups and downs, conversions, turning points, reversals. But then you keep on living, you keep on driving from one bridge to the next, and every time you look down on your life, you see a different shape.” The same could be said for fictional lives. The last third of the book focuses mainly on one important question: does the universe care, in some way, about our behavior? Is there something in the center; is there meaning? Does it even matter if one lowlife is swept from the world’s tableau?
Frances Godwin’s wrestling with these essential questions is nothing short of masterful. “How many times”, she muses, “that everything in my life has been leading up to this moment or that moment only to realize, a minute later, that this is always the case, that every moment of your life is leading up to where you are now.”
So here’s my dilemma. In many ways, I loved this book – its risk-taking narrative, its fearlessness in taking on such existential questions, its sheer beauty of prose. Yet – for me – there’s a hole in the middle of it (would Frances really commit murder?) Typically, I would 4-star this book but I know that it will linger with me a long time. And since ratings ARE subjective, I’m giving it 5 stars.
Hellenga is a terrific writer and I recommend him one and all. All of his books are well done. I especially liked Snakewoman.
In all, it was well done.