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.
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?"