The entertainment industry does a roaring trade with stories of high school. Just look at the success of movies like “Grease,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Mean Girls,” or most recently, the “High School Musical” franchise. It’s even seeped into the book industry through Harry Potter and the Twilight book series. (Granted, vampires and wizards are a new addition to the high school scene, but I suppose times change.)
Viewing it through the lens of a 1950s Catholic girls’ school in the Appalachians is a new riff on the high school story, but Gail Godwin’s intriguing novel, "Unfinished Desires," is a darkly graceful addition to the pantheon. Godwin skillfully portrays the drama and intricacy of teenage relationships, though the climax of the story might leave you a little flat.
Domineering nun Mother Suzanne Ravenel has run the show at Mount St. Gabriel’s for over 50 years. In 2001, a handful of former students asks her to record a memoir of the school, since she is the “walking deposit box of what’s left” as the longest resident of Mount St. Gabriel’s. In telling her story, Ravenel must confront and confess a host of personal demons, most notably the “toxic year” of 1951-52 after which several freshman girls were expelled and Ravenel took a mandated leave of absence.
While striding across the grounds in late summer 1951, Ravenel warns new teacher Mother Kate Malloy early on about the “challenging” freshman class: “Your rising ninth grade,” she tells the beautiful Malloy, “has made the critique of others into a high form of torture.”
The ninth grade’s leading personality is Tildy Stratton, a captivating girl who exudes leadership but struggles with dyslexia. She yearns for the attention of her mother, Cornelia, a viper-tongued photographer and former Mount St. Gabriel’s girl.
Tildy, rebounding from an abruptly severed friendship with the soul-searching Maud Norton, befriends loner Chloe Starnes, a new student and talented artist who lives with her bachelor uncle. Chloe’s mother, Agnes, recently died, but Chloe still enjoys a strong connection – and at times, communication – with her.
Ravenel decides to put Tildy’s leadership potential to good use, appointing her as director of the freshman play. As a class, the ninth-grade girls decide to revamp a Mount St. Gabriel’s favorite, “The Red Nun” (written by Ravenel herself). But as histories are unveiled and dirty secrets unmasked, Tildy’s directorship takes a sinister turn, putting everyone at risk.
Unfortunately, the climactic play performance is decidedly anticlimactic.
This is the one glaring flaw in an otherwise gleaming book. From page 1, the plot has revolved around this terrible thing that happened in the spring of ’52, and our curiosity has been building. By page 300-something, our need to know has become insatiable, and the suspense is cataclysmic. With such a buildup, our Hollywood-trained minds are expecting a massacre, public humiliation, an all-out brawl, or the mother of all catfights.
None of those happens.
In fact, not much happens at all. When the curtain is going up on The Scene To End All Scenes, the guilty party intervenes at the crucial moment and no one in the audience knows the difference. Shortly after, the people involved are left alone, and we hold our collective breath for a smack down – but again, it doesn’t come.
However unsatisfying this continual disappointment, Godwin’s writing is still marvelous: engaging, clever, and bitingly accurate. The descriptions of Catholic traditions are historically interesting, although when Godwin puts them in dialogue, they feel overly staged for the non-Catholic reader. Lesbian activity is implied throughout, though we’re not sure to what extent until it’s warily unveiled in the bitter end.
Godwin does a masterly job of juggling three time periods and multiple plot lines – 1951-52, 2001, 2007, plus all of the memories and flashbacks that the characters throw in for background and suspense. This alone is worthy of praise: chronologically, you always know where you are and when you are, and that’s important for a story that lives in three places at once.
The greatest strength of “Unfinished Desires” is that it really does encapsulate the way that teenage girls operate: the nuance, the intricacy, the sneakiness, and the devotion. They’re snaky and covert, but at the same time they’re wide-eyed and childish. It’s a funny balance between conniving adults and blithe girls, and Godwin gets it just right.
This is a story of tentacular, grudge-holding friendships, as well as an exposé on the prickly dealings of mothers and daughters. It’s no High School Musical, and it’s certainly vampire-less, but “Unfinished Desires” still catches the zeitgeist of teenage relationships.
Katie Ward was an intern at the Monitor.