'Unfinished Desires' by Gail Godwin

“Unfinished Desires” is a book that plays with time and the development of the human spirit. In lesser hands, the potential for muddle would be great. Luckily for readers, the author is Gail Godwin, who follows this perilous path with ease.

The heart of the action takes place during the 1951-52 school year at Mount St. Gabriel’s, a Catholic school for girls in North Carolina. The headmistress is the imperious Mother Ravenel, Suzanne when she was a student at the school. The stiff opposition is the ninth-grade class, led by the selfish and manipulative Tildy Stratton. Between them is the sweet, young, beautiful teacher, Mother Malloy.

If only it were that simple, and thank goodness it is not, because the influence of Mount St. Gabriel’s runs deep in the mountain town. Tildy’s tart-tongued mother, Cornelia, holds Mother Ravenel responsible for the tragic demise of her twin sister, Antonia. Suzanne and Antonia had intended to become nuns together as teens, but when Suzanne unexpectedly pursued her vocation before they had planned, Antonia decided she didn’t have a calling after all.

In an attempt to give Tildy something productive to do and improve her struggling academic performance, Mother Ravenel chooses her to direct “The Red Nun,” a play about the founding of the school written by Mother Ravenel when she was just Suzanne. Students chosen to direct the play are allowed to make revisions — a dangerous liberty for the headstrong Tildy and her bitter, devious mother.

The outcome of the play changes virtually everyone’s life.

The book is made all the more interesting by Godwin’s decision to weave the story two ways: one, a straightforward telling, and the other, Mother Ravenel’s struggles to write an honest memoir about the school.

It is fascinating to watch the once powerful Mother Ravenel humbled by age, trapped in a retirement home and slowly rediscovering her faith. It is equally satisfying to learn what eventually happens to Tildy and her friends.

Godwin does a masterful job of keeping the story on track through all the various characters and time periods. The pace is surprisingly addictive. She also throws in strategic foreshadowing to keep you in the tale. For instance, the one thing you can be sure of is that something bad is in store for sweet Mother Malloy.

Many of the smaller characters reveal surprising depth as well. And it is simply delicious that the answers to some of the book’s biggest mysteries are merely misunderstandings or simple human weakness.

While this clearly isn’t an easy weekend read, it is a compelling tale well worth the effort.