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Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Flora" by Gail Godwin~Brilliant Coming of Age Novel


Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen’s decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. At three, Helen lost her mother, and the beloved grandmother who raised her has just died. A fiercely imaginative child, Helen is desperate to keep her house intact with all its ghosts and stories. Flora, her late mother’s twenty-two-year-old first cousin, who cries at the drop of a hat, is ardently determined to do her best for Helen. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America, will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.

This darkly beautiful novel about a child and a caretaker in isolation evokes shades of The Turn of the Screw and also harks back to Godwin’s memorable novel of growing up The Finishing School. With a house on top of a mountain and a child who may be a bomb that will one day go off, Flora tells a story of love, regret, and the things we can’t undo.


Publisher:  Bloomsbury USA
Pages:  288
Genre:  Fiction
Author:  Gail Godwin
Website:  http://www.gailgodwin.com
Purchase this book:  Barnes & Noble


Gail Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama June 18, 1937, during the summer her father was managing a Krahenbuhl cousin’s lakeside resort. (Gail’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Krahenbuhl, a first generation Swiss-American, was raised in Alabama.) Gail’s parents divorced soon after, and she and her mother and newly widowed grandmother, Edna Rogers Krahenbuhl, moved back to the mountains of Asheville, N.C., the grandmother’s home. In Asheville, Kathleen Godwin supported the family by teaching at two colleges, working as a newspaper reporter, and writing romance stories for pulp magazines. Gail attended St. Genevieve’s of the Pines, a Catholic school for girls, through the ninth grade. Her new novel, Unfinished Desires, was inspired by St. Genevieve’s. Her mother remarried when Godwin was eleven, and the family moved frequently after that. Godwin attended five high schools in four years. She reunited with her father at her high school graduation from Woodrow Wilson in Portsmouth, and went to live with him in Smithfield, N.C. Godwin graduated from Peace Junior College in Raleigh, N.C., (see “Old Lovegood Girls” in Evenings at Five and Five New Stories) and transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, receiving a BA in journalism in 1959. While she was at Chapel Hill, her father committed suicide. Years later, she would memorialize him as Uncle Ambrose in her novel Violet Clay. After graduation, she worked as a reporter on the Miami Herald (a year that inspired Queen of the Underworld) and subsequently traveled to Europe, working for the United States Travel Service at the US Embassy in London. (These years are documented in Volume One of The Making of a Writer, and also treated in her novella “Mr. Bedford” in Mr. Bedford and the Muses.) In 1967, she was accepted into the Writers’ Workshop program at the University of Iowa. Along with John Irving and John Casey, she studied with Kurt Vonnegut. Her Ph.D. dissertation was published in 1970 as her first novel, The Perfectionists, thus launching a long and prolific career as a writer. Three of her novels, The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and A Mother and Two Daughters, were National Book Award finalists and five of them (A Mother and Two Daughters, The Finishing School, A Southern Family, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, and Evensong) were New York Times best sellers. Godwin has lived in Woodstock, N.Y. since 1976 with her long time companion, the composer Robert Starer, who died in 2001. Together they wrote ten musical works, including the chamber opera The Other Voice: A Portrait of Hilda of Whitby, available from Selah Publishing Company: www.selahpub.com. Evenings at Five is a novella based on Godwin’s and Starer’s life together. Godwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment grants, one for fiction and one for libretto writing. Her archives are in the Southern Historical Collection, the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Her thirteen novels, two story collections, and non-fiction works are:
The Perfectionists (Harper & Row, 1970)
Glass People (Knopf, 1972)
The Odd Woman (Knopf, 1974) National Book Award Finalist
Dream Children (Knopf, 1976) Story collection
Violet Clay (Knopf, 1978) National Book Award Finalist
A Mother and Two Daughters (Viking, 1982) National Book Award Finalist. Three months on the New York Times bestseller list. #1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list.
Mr. Bedford and the Muses (Viking, 1983) A novella and five stories
The Finishing School (Viking, 1984) New York Times bestseller
A Southern Family (Morrow, 1987) New York Times bestseller
Father Melancholy’s Daughter (Morrow, 1991) New York Times bestseller
The Good Husband (Ballantine, 1994)
Evensong (Ballantine, 1999) New York Times bestseller
Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life (Harper Collins, 2001) Godwin’s first work of non-fiction.
Evenings at Five (Ballantine, 2003)
Queen of the Underworld (Random House, 2006)
The Making of a Writer, Volume One (Random House, 2006)
Unfinished Desires (Random House, 2009)
Volume Two of The Making of a Writer is due from Random House in 2010.


I'm stepping out here with humility to write a review of Ms Godwin's latest book, "Flora."  She's my hero.  There's hardly another Southern woman writer I admire as much as I do her.  You only have to look at her list of books written and her prestigious awards to be dumb-struck.  So it is with much hesitation and trembling that I set this review to my blog today.

I, of course, think this book is another masterpiece of Gail Godwin's.  It's a coming-of-age novel in the first instance, but it's a much deeper portrayal of psychology and humanity than that beneath the surface, as so many of hers are.  Ms Godwin digs deep and she shares much with her readers.  This book is pure gold that she's mined.

The character of Helen, the 10 year old child who is featured, can only remind us of Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird," with her precociousness and earnest ways.  She's bored and she's set on the edge of disinterest and discovery...a lethal combination in a situation in which she's become a sort of prisoner of the polio scare in her town.  Her absentee father has left her with a slightly inept distant cousin for the summer, and she has nothing to do but ruminate, investigate and sort out problems for the right or for the wrong.  This young girl's life lived and reviewed over a summer of  forced abandonment and relative captivity is moving and touching in extraordinary ways.

Every page of this novel is beautifully written.  Gail Godwin is a master author of the most profound kind.  She can sort her words in the simplest way and have them deliver the largest impact.  That's the genius of this book.  While it is a novel with a child narrator, it's a story on a much deeper level.

I can't recommend the book more to friends and readers.  Perfectly wonderful read!

5 stars                     Deborah/TheBookishDame


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