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. Their unfinished desires, a key element of each person's intimate story (and of course the title of this book), is subsumed and sometimes emotionally tampered by various interpretations of past events.
Godwin uses several narrative devices with ease. Developments are non-linear and yet not confusing, and she uses several perspectives, along and within the third-person voice, to tell the complete story. There is Mother Ravenel at her tape recorder or walking with other nuns at the retirement home, contemplating her past and receding into her future. Interspersed with that is the story of that "toxic" year and the girls at the boarding school--shy and recently orphaned Chloe, who talks to her dead mother and draws pictures that explain mysterious incidents; Maud, the enigmatic, elusive and beautiful daughter of a broken home; and Tildy, the assertive ringleader and undiagnosed dyslexic who switched best friends that year from Maud to Chloe and added tension to the clusters of girls.
Tildy's sister, Madeline, animates the narrative with her grounded and giving nature. Their acid-tongued mother, Cornelia, a former classmate of Mother Ravenel, adds history and a fiendish dose of doubt and a wicked but droll perspective. She is contemptuous of Suzanne and imparts her derisiveness to her daughters. Cornelia's twin sister, Anotnia, was Mother Ravenel's best friend when they were students at Mount St. Gabriel's, and their shared history is the source of many of the secrets and future scorn by Cornelia. Then there is Mother "Kate" Malloy, the young teacher and protégé of Mother Ravenel. She is pale, beautiful, and empathic, and a fortress for the teenage girls. She claimed her vocation at an early age, but she also identifies with the tumult of her students.
A handful of the male characters are also dimensional and integral to the story. In any sprawling novel there will also be a few paper-thin walk-ons or mere vehicles for some larger purpose, and Godwin's is no exception. Often, she mirrors the scope and tone of Dickens, especially with her male characters.
We also move forward in time through some epistolary passages, which add a surprising twist and intrigue to the tale. As Godwin switches perspectives, we are carried effortlessly through the story. This is a difficult task for many authors to pull off, but Godwin engages us instantly from moment to moment, even as she changes time and perspective and narrative mode. The story deepens as the pages turn. I found myself in a kind of wonderment when the story was about 2/3 of the way through. I realized that this initially straightforward story, a story that could have become a sappy melodrama in lesser hands, had evolved into this monster of an organism with knotty, knuckled tentacles that surround and imbibe the heart. What is outward about this story is also latent and hidden. There are many submerged facets of this tale that pour into your psyche with a subliminal but fierce gusto.
Unfinished Desires is a dense but very accessible novel. It is not a "quick read" kind of book for the beach. It is a novel you savor and read as it is intended--closely and with its gradual, exalted rhythm. It is a quiet squall, a subdued tempest. The driving action is mostly psychological. It is masterful but not perfect. The last few pages, although revealing, felt a little tacked on, without sufficient roots. However, it doesn't weaken the overall novel, which delivers a sterling tale of humanity, warts and all.