Book Review: Unfinished Desires

n317505Unfinished Desires

Gail Godwin

Random House

393 pages

The premise of this book won me over straight away.  The retelling of the freshman year/class of a group of girls matriculating through a Catholic boarding school in the early 1950s.  First off–I am a big fan of stories set in boarding schools.  Why is that?  I have no idea.  But anyway, that fact, coupled with the Catholicism slant, got me very excited for this book.

Mother Ravenel was the headmistress and a youngish nun in 1951 when Mother Malloy, and even younger nun, was sent to Mount St Gabriel’s as the ninth grade teacher.  Mother Ravenel warns Mother Malloy right off the bat that the ninth grade class in ’51 is extremely difficult and scheming.  At the head of everything is Tildy Stratton, a dyslexic girl who preys on her classmates to get what she wants.  Maud Norton has been Tildy’s best friend for lterbigyears but at the start of the ninth grade year decides to pull away from Tildy and make her own decisions.  Then you have Chloe Starnes, who has only recently moved to the area after the death of her mother, Agnes Vick, class of ’34.  The class of 1934 is enmired in the story; Mother Ravenel was also a graduate of Mount St Gabriel in the same year (although she was then known as Suzanne Ravenel), as were Antonia and Cornelia Tilden, the latter of whom is Tildy’s mother.

The family ties actually go deeper and are more confusing than listed above, but for the sake of simplicity, I will leave it at that.  As a freshman at St Gabriel’s, Mother Ravenel writes a play called “The Red Nun” based on a sculpture of red Italian marble that stands in the school’s grotto.  The play has become a tradition of the school, and Tildy is given the honor of being the director for her class’s production of the play.  However, Tildy has an axe to grind with Mother Ravenel–really she is the mouthpiece for Cornelia, who blames Antonia’s death on Mother Ravenel and seeks to somewhat avenge said death.

It all sounds very wicked, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  Mother Ravenel made the ninth grade class out to be absolutely horrible.  This was far from the case.  With the exception of Tildy, everyone seemed timid and mild.  And even in Tildy’s case, she couldn’t be held completely responsible.  Cornelia Tilden Stratton was rotton to the core.  She stopped at nothing to get what she wanted (and she was by FAR my favorite character, if due only to her entertainment factor).  In this way she encouraged Tildy to be devious and bitter.  By the end of the book, I pitied Tildy over anything else.  So I thought the portrayal of this “awful” class was anything but.  Which turned the story into something that was anti-climactic.

I feel like the cover did nothing to amp up the book.  (On a side note, how funny that I’ve had such strong reactions to the cover of a book in my last two reviews!)  The colors and 9sr_frances_nunvisage are so muted that I can’t see it driving any prospective reader to give the book a second glance. And while we’re on the subject of the cover, let me say a word about the title as well.  again, I don’t think the title lends anything positive to the book.  Hearing the title, I would expect this to be erotica or something.  And while I think the book does deal with “unfinished desires”, I think it is an uninspired title.

Overall, there was a lot going for this book to grab my attention.  In that respect, I feel like I enjoyed the book more than the average person.  The Catholicism for example–I am a recent convert and find the faith to be very new and intriguing.  But maybe the religious aspect of this book would turn people away.  I just don’t see that there is anything special to grab the reader’s attention.  If I were one to rate books, I would give this book a 3/5–pretty much right in the middle.  I enjoyed it well enough to keep reading it through to the end, but overall there’s not really anything special about this book.

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4 Responses

  1. I’d have to agree about the title and cover. Doesn’t in the least give you any idea what the book is about; if anything the title would turn me away from the book.

  2. This does sound interesting.

  3. […] Unfinished Desires, Gail Godwin […]

  4. What a bummer…your first couple of paragraphs had me intrigued. Too bad it didn’t live up to the premise.

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