In 2001, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, now in her 80s and nearly blind, begins recording a memoir of her decades as headmistress at Mount Saint Gabriel's, a North Carolina school for girls. Mother Ravenel cannot help dwelling on her worst time there, the school year 1951-1952. She uses the words "catastrophic," "repercussions," "tragic" and "toxic" when she thinks of what happened. This musing sets up the central mystery for readers, as we wonder what dire events could have transpired.
Mother Ravenel's pages are interspersed with tales from that school year (and eventually from 2007), centered on various players in the unfolding drama, beginning with the arrival of a new teacher, young Mother Malloy, in August 1951. Mother Malloy has been assigned to teach the ninth graders, a group Mother Ravenel describes as challenging, warning that in their collective cruelty they sent a long-time lay teacher packing the previous year.
As the narrative shifts viewpoints, we get to know the characters. When another school newcomer, recently orphaned ninth-grader Chloe Starnes, arrives on registration day, she meets a remote cousin by marriage, the scheming ringleader Tildy Stratton. Chloe also meets Tildy's supposed best friend, Maud Norton, soon to be snubbed by Tildy. Tildy is furious with Maud, who had been a big social zero until Tildy made the poor girl into her "Magnanimous Experiment." The ungrateful Maud had offended Tildy by sending her the sketchiest postcards during Maud's summer away visiting her father. And now, adding insult to major injury, Maud has been physically transformed into a beautiful and stylish young woman during her time away.
As Mother Ravenel's memoir continues in 2001, the author drops us a tantalizing clue here and another one there. We wonder: How did that long-ago class force the Mother to take sick leave? Why was it such a sad time, in her memory? What happened with Mother Malloy?
Back in 1951, we discover that Tildy has made Chloe her new best friend. The two bond during a trip to Tildy's family cabin. While they toast marshmallows, they ponder an old family mystery. The girls wonder why Tildy's deceased aunt (her mother's identical twin) had married Chloe's uncle instead of following her chosen vocation as a nun.
Meanwhile, Maud contemplates her new position at school. She is no longer half of "TildyandMaud." It's a bittersweet feeling; she's been voted class president again, but this time without Tildy's intervention, which makes Maud proud. But knowing Tildy has already found a new best friend rankles.
Tildy plays a pivotal role between Mother Malloy (who is protective of the girl because of a learning disability), Mother Ravenel (who is galled by Tildy's family) and Tildy's own mother (who despises Mother Ravenel for reasons of her own). As Mother Ravenel confers upon Tildy an unexpected honor, readers sense a foreboding darkness ahead --- one that is simultaneously fearsome and irresistible.
This multilayered novel is not a quick beach read (nor would any Gail Godwin fan expect one from her). Instead, UNFINISHED DESIRES is a deep and complex tale, all the better to escape into. Writing with her customary elegance, she immerses us into this claustrophobic society of adolescent girls at school in the early 1950s. Then she keeps us turning pages with a suspenseful and satisfying plot. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 24, 2011