August Read of the Month: “Old Lovegood Girls,” by Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin


Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Gail Godwin is a Southern treasure who is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, counting five best-sellers and three finalists for the National Book Award among her many novels. Born in Alabama, raised in North Carolina, and educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (and later at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop), her Southern roots are as undeniable as her talents. With her newest novel, Old Lovegood Girls, Godwin once again offers her readers a tenderly insightful, beautifully crafted, and heartbreakingly acute novel that displays both her roots and her talents.

Organized into five parts that range from 1958 to the 1990s, Old Lovegood Girls primarily tells the story of two women’s enduring connections, although other compelling characters occupy a strong place in the storyline. The protagonists, Feron Hood and Meredith (Merry) Jellico, meet at a two-year Southern women’s college and become lifelong friends. While the plot itself, when reduced to its bare bones, sounds simple enough, its richness and emotional quality transform it into something sublime—and as complex as friendship, marriage, and competition. These three things are, in fact, some of the dominant themes in the book.

The story begins when the dean of Lovegood College and a dorm mistress “stood brooding over the student housing plans laid out on the rosewood conference table.” With some misgivings, but plenty of good will and hope, they assign as roommates Feron, a young woman has been “subject to a wider range of life’s misadventures than our typical Lovegood girl,” with the “positive” and “insightful” Merry. Merry says of herself that the worst that has happened to her is that her pet dog died. This will, of course, change and rather quickly. Feron, on the other hand, has already lost her parents and been subjected to an abusive step-father who “had liked her better before she showed signs of turning into a woman. At which point he started tormenting her in a new way.”

Despite their differences, the two young women become close friends. Ever so gradually Feron’s backstory is revealed as she tells Merry some, but certainly not all, of her early life—the drunk mother who dies suspiciously, the step-father Feron accuses of murder, and Feron’s own escape by running away and finding her father’s brother. Her uncle is one of the unsung heroes in the book. He takes Feron into his life and ultimately enrolls her, despite some irregularities with her high school transcripts, into Lovegood.

Merry’s youthful backstory is far simpler. The only daughter of a successful tobacco farmer, she adores her parents and her younger brother. Her life has been secure with the limited exception of her mother’s periodic bouts of depression. The farm manager, Mr. Jack, adores Merry, and their relationship is poignant and a bit mystifying. As an adult, Merry never fully achieves her potential as a writer, tied down as she is to the family farm in an era in which tobacco becomes reviled.

Lovegood College, described as “inspired by a Stuart mansion” and comprised of “a collection of little fiefdoms,” is presented as a distinct character in the story, with its history told in snippets here and there until the full story—like Feron’s—is finally revealed. Situated in North Carolina, the college’s history dates before the Civil War, when founder Horace Lovegood wished to create “a learning place for young women where they can partake of the same substantial branches of knowledge that their brothers consider a birthright.” With the interruption of war and Reconstruction, the college did not officially open to students until 1872. Godwin describes the nearly cloistered experiences in the college in 1958 and the teachers there in mostly reverent details, though a bit of sexual harassment from one of the male teachers is glossed over by the dean.

Feron and Merry share their dorm room only for one semester, after which situations pull them apart and Merry leaves the school. But during that brief time, Merry writes a short story that their English teacher and Feron both recognize as exceptional. Feron, in a fit of competitive zest, writes her own story, determined to do better than her friend. Eventually, both women become authors, though neither makes their living at writing.

When first reading Merry’s short story at college, Feron discovers “something new about herself… she was goaded by someone else’s success.” Feron acknowledges that “[j]ealousy woke up in [her] like a sleeping animal,” and though it made her “cringe,” she also thought: “I can do this. I can do it better.”

After Merry leaves the college, she and Feron do not see each other for ten eventful years, which the novel reveals in well-crafted alternating vignettes, letters, and internal monologues. Feron ends up in New York City and Merry stays in North Carolina. After their reconnection, they rarely see each other in person until the novel’s end. Yet even during their years apart, their affection and mutual admiration remains strong.

Each woman suffers tragedies in her life, and each finds a measure of success. Both marry older men in unconventional marriages. Merry’s early promise as a writer falters, but Feron’s takes off. When Feron steals part of Merry’s real life story for one of her novels, Merry is dismayed. Showing more sensitivity than Feron, she abandons a work in progress over concerns about violating the privacy of people who inspired her characters. Feron’s biggest literary accomplishment is her novel about her own quirky courtship with her husband, aptly titled A Singular Courtship. But even after its success, Feron “would mentally cringe and wait for the [internal warning] gauge’s alarm to go off.”

Each woman traces some measure of her literary merits to her English and composition teacher at Lovegood College, a petite woman who read them Anton Chekov stories in a voice “like a cello.” The same professor also taught them to “accept being left in uncertainty.” When Merry first publishes a short story in Atlantic Monthly, she adopts the teacher’s surname as part of a pseudonym to honor her.

Given its lengthy chronological range, Old Lovegood Girls has clear attributes of a historical novel. It also has some elements of an epistolary novel as critical parts are revealed in letters.

Old Lovegood Girls is without question the finely wrought of an intelligent and well-educated author. Having authored books for over 50 years, Godwin proves once more that she remains a literary force. Old Lovegood Girls is Southern literature at its finest.

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