Set mostly in the early 1950s while the girls are freshmen and Mother Ravenel is principal, the story weaves back and forth between the past and present. In 2001, Mother Ravenel records her reflections for a memoir about the school’s history and that fateful freshman class.
Unfortunately, the nearly 400-page book does not live up to its intriguing title until the last few pages, when finally the pace picks up speed, and the reader discovers what happened to the students in adulthood.
The story lines are a bit sleepy, and as drama unfolds, Godwin interrupts the flow with another chapter, side story or indirectly related recording for the memoir. More often than not, the book reads as if it were written for television with distinct pauses for commercial breaks. Because of this, the book is easy to put down.
Godwin misses several opportunities to tell a juicy, exciting story. For example, she mentions occasionally, but does not fully develop, a secret society in the school. The author unveils the real excitement, such as a shocking marriage and drug abuse, in the last few pages rather than fully exploring these issues earlier in the book.
Slow storytelling aside, Godwin’s writing is something to admire. Her vocabulary is refreshing and even on occasion called for a dictionary, and her attention to character development was interesting. Because of this, it is not shocking that Godwin is a three-time National Book Award nominee. However, “Unfinished Desires” most definitely falls short of any such honor.
Lordan is former assistant international editor of Catholic New Service and contributor to Catholic Radio Weekly.