404 pages. $21.95.
Gail Godwin has done it again. Few writers can draw you into the lives of her characters and make you believe about them the way she can. It makes no difference that she has chosen a subject remote from the experiences of most of her readers -- the family of a High Episcopalian priest in a small Southern town.
The novel is narrated by Margaret Gower, who grows from age 6 to 22 during the course of the novel. The first sentence sets the tone: "Although I did not know it then, my life of unpremeditated childhood ended on Wednesday, September 13, 1972." That was the day Margaret's mother, Ruth, left her daughter and her husband, Walter, the rector of St. Cuthbert's in Romulus, Va.
In the two chapters before Ruth disappears, Ms. Godwin gives us a picture of her as a lively, funny woman who is trusted and adored by her daughter. When Madelyn Farley, an old friend of Ruth's, comes to visit her at the rectory and has to leave the next day for New York, Walter encourages his wife to go with her for a short vacation. He is 16 years older than she and is subject to bouts of severe depression that he knows are hard on her.
But the vacation lengthens into months. The next summer, when she and Madelyn are in England, Ruth is killed in a car accident.
Her leaving, and her death when Margaret is barely 7, shape the rest of her daughter's childhood and youth. She becomes her father's helper and confidante. As she grows into adolescence, she and her father obsessively try to reconstruct the reasons Ruth left. They go over every detail of the family's last dinner together.
We see only episodic flashes of Margaret between age 6 and her final year of college. She had wanted to commute to the University of Virginia so that she could keep an eye on her father, but then one of his parishioners set him up with a recent widow who wanted the company of a boarder but didn't need to be paid, and Margaret's father insisted she move to Charlottesville. She observes: "I had been insulted by his cavalier command to 'live my young life.' I had never been young, what made him think I could start now?"
In college, when not making cocoa for her landlady or trying to shake her father out of his depression, Margaret occasionally goes out with Ben MacGruder, whom she has known since she was 6. He adores her, but she feels they messed up their relationship with sex and just wants to be friends. Margaret's college adviser, Professor Stannard, is as old-fashioned as the rest of her world: "In such a courtly manner the two of us flirted, a 68-year-old medievalist and a clergyman's daughter."
Catering constantly to the needs of others, she finds little time and doesn't exactly know what this self wants. Before the book ends, much else happens to Margaret, including love, death and unexpected encounter with a person from her past.
In some ways, the central character is Father Gower, or Father Melancholy, as he is nicknamed by an old friend in the parish because of his periodic black moods. His dedication to the life he has chosen shines through the pages, though he is perfectly capable of laughing at certain members of his flock. A complex and sympathetic man, he enjoys gardening, reading "The Water Babies" to his daughter and discussing the fine points of ritual and prayer with a fellow priest.
The book's ending is just right. Neither a pat, happy ending nor one of despair or complete uncertainty, it is simply satisfying, with some questions left unanswered and a feeling conveyed that life goes on. Certainly Ms. Godwin's characters will stay on in the mind of a reader of this book.