Saturday, June 25, 2011

Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin

Unfinished Desires: A NovelUnfinished Desires: A Novel by Gail Godwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unfinished Desires is an excellent read by Gail Godwin, one of my favorite authors. The characters are wonderfully complex. The story takes place in Mount St. Gabriel's, a Catholic school for girls in western North Carolina. The setting is perfect for raising relationship issues to the forefront and for presenting interesting perspectives on faith.

Mother Suzanne Ravenel is the headmistress of the school. She is a strong leader who has provided her girls with a rich environment that is secure and also stimulating enough to offer a good education. But she is overbearing and suffers from the most common flaw in supervisors from all walks of life, she confuses loyalty to the headmistress with loyalty to the school. For example, Madeline Stratton, one of the most selfless and intelligent characters in the book, was not asked back to the school after something she said insulted Mother Ravenel. There are other, more important examples of this flaw of Ravenel's, but I don't want to put a spoiler in this review so I'll skip them.

I love the way Godwin handles faith in her writing. (Father Melancholy's Daughter and Evensong are great examples of this.) In Unfinished Desires she is covering the Catholic faith rather than the Anglican, but she does so with as much honesty and respect. I found the character of Chloe to be the most interesting in this area because her faith manifests itself in a manner that verges on insane. But at the same time it makes sense in the context of the beliefs of this group of people. Many of the nuns talk to God and God answers.

The other aspect of this book that I love is the way Godwin has centered her plot around small parts of school life that everyone can identify with. She's taken things like book reports and school plays and raised their importance through the points of view of the characters. She's also used those projects to cover issues such as learning disabilities in ways that add to the intensity of the book.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Character development in fiction

The general definition of a tragic flaw is a flaw in character that causes the defeat of the hero in a tragedy. In my favorite books character flaws exist for all and don't always bring about their defeat.

I've been listening to an audio version of Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires, so I'm thinking about character development. Godwin does an amazing job of creating people that readers can admire in one sense and find distasteful in another. That is one of the reasons why her books are among my favorites.

I heard a recent interview of Ann Patchett during which she disparaged the statement that many writers, myself included, often make about our characters writing our stories. Patchett said she is always in charge and I can understand her point. When I'm writing I put myself in the heads of my characters and try to feel what they're feeling. Then I let go. That's how my characters write my story, but it is still me. I think all people have the capacity to feel what the most glorious and the most heinous people feel, because we all experience greed and hatred as well as benevolence and love. Good writers can capture both positive and negative feelings and put them on paper in the form of the actions of their characters.

I've heard many writers say that there are only a limited amount of plots. Each time I hear someone make that statement the number seems to change, but the idea is the same. Character development could have the same description, because there are only a limited amount of emotions people can feel towards each other. I suppose writers could use transactional analysis (or some other relationship theory) to figure their characters out. But this generalization about either plotting or character development limits the importance of subtle differences. The best writers pull from an infinite amount of choices for their characters and their plots.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure (Thrift Edition)Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There may be a powerful ending in Jude the Obscure that I haven't reached yet because at this time I still have about 20% to go. But I've reached what was clearly a climax in the relationship of Jude and Sue and I've certainly read enough to talk about the book.

This novel was published in its entirety in 1895, although it ran as a magazine serial prior to that. According to Wikipedia, Thomas Hardy started working on it in 1887. The work does what I love fiction to do. It presents ideas that are thought provoking. Its ideas were controversial at the time it was released, but there are enough universal themes in the work to make it relevant for today's readers.

Jude is a young man living in Marygreen England in the late nineteenth century. He is living with his aunt and working in her bakery. He is an excellent student at a time when physical skills are more appreciated than scholarship. But he admires his teacher and longs to learn as much as possible with the goal of eventually becoming a member of the clergy.

Jude is seduced by a local woman who tricks him into marriage. Their union lasts a short time and the two go their separate ways. But Jude is now burdened with an attachment that interferes with his desire to marry Sue Bridehead, his cousin with whom he falls in love. The novel follows their relationship as they try to deal with the dictates of nineteenth century England.

The ideas in Jude the Obscure are critical of organized religion and of the institution of marriage as it was in the 1800's. But it is also a story about gossip and people who are not allowed to live their lives the way they've chosen because of the society around them. It's also about insecurity and overreaction, making the characters universally human.

One of the aspects of the book I found most interesting was the way the relationship of cousins was treated in that era. It seems much more complicated than I had realized. Jude and Sue were allowed to marry at that time and no one seemed to frown on that. But they could also be treated as if they were brother and sister, if they wanted to be. It seemed odd that in a time when there was so little acceptance of differences in lifestyles people were allowed to define their relationships with their cousins.

Hardy often tells the reader what his characters are thinking through their dialog rather than showing through their actions. At times that feels a bit stilted, but there are enough subtleties in the story to compensate for that. It's a good read and the Kindle version is free on Project Gutenberg.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

The sequel to Motherless Soul

Motherless Soul has been out a little more than a year and a half now. The reaction to the book has been great, so I'm working on a sequel. My goal is to have the first draft done by the end of this year. However, the first draft will require quite a bit of revising. The characters have done what they're supposed to do. They've taken over the story. I will have to go back and change some of the earlier chapters so the plot lines they picked out will work. I had a friend call this art of working beginning to end with lots of revisits along the way - “zig-zag” writing.

There are sections of the new novel that will take place in the nineteenth century. So, in addition to traditional means of research, I'm reading some literature for that era. I've read Middlemarch by George Eliot and Nana by Emile Zola and I'm about a third of the way through Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I like what I pick up from books written during the historical era I'm covering because the authors are writing for the people of that time. They carefully describe the exceptional events, but assume the readers understand the day to day events. It takes a different kind of thought process to appreciate the classics.

The only character I'm bringing over from the first book is the hypnotist. He's moved on to a new project involving all new people. I don't want the second book to be too much like the first so I'm carefully including aspects that work out in a very different manner. I'm also using some ideas from people who enjoyed the first novel. I'm very encouraged by the way it is going, but it's far from done. No matter what happens the process is something I look forward to every day.