Veteran Godwin’s latest (Grief Cottage, 2017, etc.) tracks a half-century friendship between two very different yet oddly compatible women.
The dean and dorm mistress of Lovegood College pair Feron Hood and Merry Jellicoe as roommates in 1958, hoping that sunny, outgoing Merry will be a steadying influence on Feron, who has recently lost her alcoholic mother and fled from an abusive stepfather. The girls do indeed form a lasting bond even though Merry leaves after a single semester to run the family tobacco farm when her parents are killed in a plane crash. They have both taken their first steps as writers under the guidance of Literature and Composition teacher Maud Petrie, and during their mostly long-distance relationship, Feron will be goaded to write three novels by Merry’s occasional magazine publications; she is at work on a fourth about their friendship as the book closes. The two women rarely meet in person, and Feron is bad about answering letters, but we see that they remain important in each other’s thoughts. Godwin unfolds their stories in a meditative, elliptical fashion, circling back to reveal defining moments that include tragic losses, unexpected love, and nurturing friendships. Self-contained, uncommunicative Feron seems the more withholding character, but Merry voices one of the novel’s key insights: “Everyone has secrets no one else should know” while Feron reveals essential truths about her life in her novels. Maud Petrie and Lovegood dean Susan Fox, each of whom has secrets of her own, continue as strong presences for Feron and Merry, who have been shaped by Lovegood more enduringly than they might have anticipated. Feron’s courtly Uncle Rowan and blunt Aunt Mabel, Merry’s quirky brother Ritchie, devoted manager Mr. Jack, and a suave Navy veteran with intimate links to both women are among the many nuanced characters drawn by Godwin with their human contradictions and complexities on full display. A closing letter from Dean Fox movingly reiterates the novel’s conjoined themes of continuity and change.
Intelligent, reflective, satisfying fiction from an old master.