“I thought once again of my early experiments with Lois while we were waiting for life to begin.
Hard to imagine now. Hard to remember. These memories were like shadows.
Lois and I never spoke of them,
never brought them into the light.
When we died, they would disappear with us.”
So says Frances Godwin, a retired high-school Latin teacher inching toward the twilight of life, in Robert Hellenga’s lovely new novel The Confessions of Frances Godwin.
Passages like this are found throughout the novel, lending color and shadow and texture to this fictional memoir, a story about a woman looking back on her life as she muddles through the present while contemplating the future. Meditative and quirky—like many of Hellenga’s novels—The Confessions of Frances Godwin is elegant and honest, a novel at once quiet and provocative.
There are no werewolves or zombies or wizards here. No dystopian post-apocalyptic world driven by strife and ruled by teenagers. No, The Confessions of Frances Godwin is a book about adults living in the real world, dealing with real-world issues, and negotiating real-world relationships. Thoughtfully written, this story is lovingly told, replete with all the anxiety and frustration and humor and irony that real life affords.
That’s not to say, though, that nothing of interest happens in these pages or that the story is so quiet as to be dull. Far from it. The Confessions of Frances Godwin finds the narrator, Frances, a sixty-something Midwestern woman, juggling the death of her long-ailing husband with her new status as a retiree, forcing her to rethink what her future will look like. She struggles to hang on to the thinnest thread of a relationship with her noncomformist daughter, who is married to a hateful cad who commits one too many ugly, harmful acts of rage. And, then, although she is far from pious, she finds herself talking to God. And God responds, launching them into an ongoing conversation full of sparring and wit, a conversation that will test Frances’s faith and mettle.
With most of life behind her, Frances—who by most measures seems a rather plain, everyday Jane doing everyday things in an everyday place—actually has rather a lot to confess, which is quite wonderful and delicious. These confessions are somewhat surprising but somehow not shocking; they paint a picture of a woman of many layers. Hellenga has drawn in Frances a character who accepts herself—all of herself: her past, her regrets, her failings, her successes. In doing so, Frances becomes a woman the reader can’t help but admire. She is a woman anyone would be lucky to know in real life: a person rich in experience and emotion, full of stories and insight, at once flawed and perfect in all her imperfections.
Hellenga has a way of making the everyday feel brand new and of making the strange feel completely acceptable. Richly drawn characters and expertly paced narrative combine to gently push the story forward, pulling the reader in deeper and deeper until every facet of the story feels completely believable, until the reader wants to be a part of this world, fictional or not.
Peppered with phrases in Latin and Italian, sprinkled with references to music and theater, The Confessions of Frances Godwin is something of an exercise in erudition, although it doesn’t feel pretentious or showy. Some readers might balk at all the foreign phrases and references to various fine arts, but these are minor complaints. Indeed, Hellenga has paired intellectual exploration of life’s most profound questions with some healthy, raw emotion, resulting in a well-balanced story that is compelling from beginning to end.
The Confessions of Frances Godwin doesn’t hit the reader over the head with obvious solutions. It doesn’t shock the reader with cheap or salacious twists and turns. And yet it is gripping. Somehow, it needles the reader, making it impossible to set down the book without thinking about it, wondering not only about Frances and the people who surround her but about oneself and the people in our own lives.
This is a masterful effort. The Confessions of Frances Godwin should be at the top of the to-read list for fans of Hellenga’s work. For those who are new to his work, it still should be at the top of that to-read list.
July 2014, Bloomsbury
$26, hardcover, 303 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen