Sunday, February 28, 2010

When Past and Present Collide

Gail Goodwin’s thirteenth novel, “Unfinished Desires”, is a story about related generations, teenage girls, the South, nuns and God-------a combustible combination!

In 2001 at the age of eighty five and living in a retirement home in Boston, Mother Suzanne Ravenel is tape recording the history of Mount St. Gabriel. The story moves from Boston in 2001 to Mountain City, North Carolina in 1951. Mother Ravenel was the head of this all girl’s Catholic School set in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. Suzanne Ravenel came to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a student and stayed on after she became a nun and was the head mistress of the school for many years. As Mother Ravenel attempts to narrate the history of the school her thoughts keep returning to 1951, “the toxic year” and the one night that changed the lives of a young nun, her ninth grade charges and Mother Ravenel.

Gail Goodwin is a great story teller and her characters are riveting. To reconcile the “toxic year” Suzanne Ravenel goes back to her own senior year, 1931, and her friendship with the wonderful Antonia Tilden. The generations of students at Mount St. Gabriel are all connected. The friends Suzanne Ravenel had in 1931 now had daughters and nieces attending Mount St. Gabriel‘s. And, the generations were connected by bad blood that had been festering for years. The author skillfully moves the plot back and forth between the generations letting the reader in on the motives that propelled these adolescent girls to the night in 1951 that altered so many lives.

This is a good story, with many wonderful, quirky young girls, their difficult mothers and secretive aunts. Gail Goodwin has a talent for developing interesting characters that pull the reader into the story. Mother Ravenel has struggled for years with the part she played in the events that unfolded that fateful night. But Gail Goodwin leaves the reader with an eighty five year old nun who can finally reconcile her questionable motives, with a lifetime of service to God and to Mount St. Gabriel. Ms. Goodwin has many messages she wants the reader to understand. First, that unfinished desires can lead to a problematic life and can be passed on from generation to generation, but Ms. Goodwin also wants us know that it is possible for desires to be left unfinished and for a life to be well lived.

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