A Century Of Schoolgirls' Secrets And 'Desires'

c: 'Unfinished Desires'
Unfinished Desires: A Novel
By Gail Godwin
Hardcover, 416 pages
Random House
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

Today's snarky gossip girls have nothing on the hotbed of 1950s "bitchery and intrigue" spawned by 13-year-olds in Gail Godwin's sumptuous and spicy new novel. Unfinished Desires is a spellbinding psychological ghost story, near operatic in intensity. The story spans almost a century, from 1910, when Mount St. Gabriel's, a private Catholic girls' school in a small North Carolina mountain town, is founded, to 2008, when three women from the "poisonous" ninth grade class of 1952 are reconnected at age 70.

Mount St. Gabriel's, which draws its setting from Godwin's own girlhood school, St. Genevieve's of the Pines in Asheville, N.C., has as its mascot the Red Nun, a half-finished red marble rendering of an early student who died tragically young. Beneath her serene surface, the Red Nun represents generations of secrets.

Godwin balances historic and contemporary threads with her usual consummate finesse, alternating between 2001, when the school's retired headmistress, 85-year-old Mother Suzanne Ravenel, is dictating her memoirs, and the 1950s, when Tildy, the sharp-tongued and possessive ringleader of a rebellious clique of ninth graders, sets in motion revelations that will eventually haunt Mother Ravenel. (Read Mother Ravenel's introduction to Mount St. Gabriel's.)

Godwin's portrayal of the early years, when the school is abuzz with the energy of its founder — an Englishwoman who espoused "holy daring" and spoke glowingly of "a woman's freedom in God" — is bracing. Godwin parses class distinctions in the small-town South perfectly and is an ace at evoking the intensity of the teen years: rivalries and budding passions; attachments and betrayals; hidden motives and sly bids for advantage.

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Beth Bliss
Gail Godwin

Author Gail Godwin

Beth Bliss

Unfinished Desires is chockablock with vivid characters, and among its delights is watching them steep in time, growing ever stronger in flavor. The most complex of all is Mother Ravenel, a nun who looks searchingly into her duplicitous past (yes, she confesses, she was envious, competitive and controlling, even toward the classmate she loved) and faces at last a question she raised as a schoolgirl: "What did you love most? And what have you left undone?"

Excerpt: 'Unfinished Desires'

'Unfinished Desires'
Unfinished Desires
By Gail Godwin
Hardcover, 416 pages
Random House
List price: $26

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.

Excerpted from Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin Copyright 2009 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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