Gail Godwin and a Perfect Reading Summer

Grief Cottage (womanaround town.com)
(Image from womanaroundtown.com)

Once, when I was in college and working at a bookstore, I had a perfect reading summer. It must have been around 1978; we were encouraged, by our boss, to take books home and read them gently. Then we could knowledgeably and authentically recommend or discourage. That was the year I read, among other things, Marilyn French’s Women’s Room and Mary Gordon’s Final Payments. And that was the year I discovered the work of Gail Godwin. (If you were a young woman reading voraciously in those years, you may recognize the doors those books opened and the foreign vistas that became inhabitable through that reading.)

I think the first Godwin work that I read was Glass People, which was a sad story about a very compelling character named Francesca Holt; I found another compelling main character, although a very different one, in The Odd Woman. I read Violet Clay, and then I started watching for Godwin releases, so I was excited to get A Mother and Two Daughters  in 1982. I loved that book.

Then, life getting busy, with papers to grade, and a baby whose needs were immediate and unique, and a return to grad school, I lost the Godwin thread. There wasn’t much leisure reading, and what there was tended to be by Barry Brazelton or Penelope Leach. But I would gather the thread up again at the library, in later years, when I saw a Godwin–Father Melancholy’s Daughter, for instance,–on the New Books Shelf.

Last week, I was surprised to find a new Godwin novel, Grief Cottage.

The reviews say the question Grief Cottage addresses is this: can the needs of the living and the needs of the dead converge? I’m not sure if he actually saw the ghost he believed in at Grief Cottage, but Marcus surely was a heart-wrenching young character.  Orphaned when his single mom dies in a car crash, the 11-year old goes to live with his eccentric, sometimes cranky, great aunt on a South Carolina Island. Terrified of being sent away, he becomes almost a housekeeper–cleaning floors, changing sheets, and uncorking wine bottles (until his aunt’s drinking becomes so pronounced he asks a trusted friend for help). All summer, Marcus looks forward to the hatching of the sea turtles…and he misses it: a guest has fouled the bathroom; the boy feels compelled to clean it up.

The novel confused me in spots–the rage that Marcus displayed toward Wheezer seemed totally out of character, and I thought, in the book’s beginning, there were clear hints that the boy was gay. But Marcus grows up and becomes a psychiatrist, happily marries a woman, reconciles with the childhood friend he’d beaten so badly. It made me wonder if Marcus, as a narrator, was completely reliable. Perhaps Wheezer’s injuries weren’t nearly as bad as he imagined. Perhaps the ‘rapture’ he felt after seeing the boy-ghost was not directly related to the ghost teen’s tough and comely appearance. And surely, as a bereft and guilt-ridden 11-year old, Marcus’s viewpoint was clouded.

I enjoyed Grief Cottage; I drank it in, a great summer read, much as I drank in Godwin’s first books, and the reading is sending me to the library shelves today to look for Godwin books…for the fiction I missed, and for the non-fiction that somehow never crossed my radar screen. I know my reading is tinted by the wonder of that long-ago summer when discovering new authors and new vistas was an amazing gift, but Gail Godwin’s voice and her characters remain, for me, true and compelling. I look forward to more.

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