“Old Lovegood Girls: A Novel”
Author: Gail Godwin
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Price: $27.00 (hardcover)
The publication of “Old Lovegood Girls” is a genuine literary event, worthy of celebration. This book marks 50 years of publishing since Godwin’s debut with “The Perfectionists” in 1970.
Born in Birmingham in 1937, Godwin has had a productive, distinguished career. There are many prizes, including a Guggenheim, several best-sellers, and three novels that were finalists for the National Book Award.
Godwin also has published two story collections, several volumes of memoir and about ten libretti for opera.
Early novels like “A Southern Family” and “A Mother and Two Daughters” which sold a million and a half copies, were popular hits, and though there were stretches where reviewers were grumpy, Godwin has prevailed. Her last novel, “Grief Cottage,” was splendid and well received.
In “Lovegood Girls,” Godwin’s sixteenth novel, she is confident in her powers, an old professional in complete control, in no hurry get the story told, taking the time needed for the reader to know and understand the characters and their complicated lives.
The novel opens in August of 1958 as we watch Dean Susan Fox and dorm mistress Winifred Darden in fictional Lovegood College, a two-year school for girls in North Carolina. They are at work assigning freshmen roommates for the upcoming year.
They match vivacious, outgoing Meredith Grace Jellicoe, called Merry, daughter of a successful tobacco plantation family, with Feron Hood, an orphan with a troubled past, a girl who was perhaps even homeless for a spell.
From that August 1958 meeting the action will move forward through 43 years to 2001. We will watch as the two girls become best friends, go separate ways, but maintain the relationship.
We will learn about each girl’s past, before Lovegood, and of course, those stories turn out to be much less straightforward than one might imagine.
We will follow each girl’s life after Lovegood as Merry Jellicoe takes over the family plantation, loses loved ones, marries, enjoys happiness and suffers grief and tries her hand at writing.
We also watch Feron Hood. She gets her B.A. at Chapel Hill, works in publishing and writes novels herself. (Gail Godwin studied at Peace College, a two-year school in Raleigh, and then took a B.A. in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill.)
The ethics of literary appropriation are raised. May Feron use Merry’s life story without permission? Merry is mildly upset when she does!
We even learn a good deal about the lives of Dean Fox and Winifred Darden. They each have private lives and secrets; who doesn’t?
“Lovegood Girls” contains plenty of story, but is also a very self-consciously literary novel, exploring the infinite variations available to a master of the form.
It is an epistolary novel, but spare, as opposed to an eighteenth-century novel like “Clarissa,” in which female characters write twice a day. Very few letters are exchanged between the friends; sometimes years pass in between.
But the letters matter.
Both girls admire and are affected by the brief stories of Anton Chekov, which may capture only a moment and often end in uncertainty.
Later, Feron admires “Amsterdam,” by Ian McEwan, a short and powerful novel of envy and ambition, her own faults, and “The Hours,” by Michael Cunningham, a kind of homage to “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Feron marries Will, her history professor at Chapel Hill, 16 years her senior. A medievalist, he explains that medieval artists did not strive to be original. They meant to improve upon, enhance the art forms they inherited.
Feron is also heavily influenced by her mentor in NYC, Latin American novelist Alexy Cuervo. Cuervo is a mysterious guru-figure who advises Feron to place her fictions in the frames of old tales, even fairy tales. (Godwin took her graduate work at The University of Iowa. Her mentor there, and for a long while afterwards, was Kurt Vonnegut, something of a fabulist himself.)
She takes Cuervo’s advice and makes use of the “Beauty and the Beast” story in one novel and the legend of Bluebeard in another, adapting them to her purposes.
“Lovegood” is mostly a novel of psychological realism; nevertheless, even death is not an absolute.
Godwin has always loved ghosts and often puts them into her fiction. The wisdom of the deceased is remembered in “Lovegood Girls” and in some cases, the deceased are perhaps seen and their voices heard.
The voices of these characters were very clear to me and I will be hearing them for a long time to come.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.