Tag Archives: Robert Hellenga

Compelling ‘Confessions’

CBR_Logo2The Confessions of Frances Godwin:
A Novel
by Robert Hellenga

“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.

Godwin 9781620405512Passages 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.


Author Robert Hellenga

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.

Four-Star Review

July 2014, Bloomsbury
$26, hardcover, 303 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62040-549-9

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Read more about the book.
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Local Author Spotlight: Robert Hellenga, ‘Midwestern Author’ (and That’s Just Fine)

CBR_Logo2Robert Hellenga’s first novel was rejected thirty-nine times before it finally found a publisher. The Sixteen Pleasures (Soho Press, 1994) went on to earn glowing reviews from Booklist, Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, Library Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Publishers Weekly.

Six novels later (a seventh is in the works), Hellenga, the George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Knox College in Galesburg, is hooked on writing fiction. “I don’t know what to do if I don’t have a project,” he says.


Author Robert Hellenga

Hellenga grew up in Three Oaks, Michigan. Life, love, family, and work have taken him across the country and around the world, from the Midwest to the East Coast and from Ireland to Italy. He began teaching in 1968 at Knox College, which was one of the first institutions in the country to offer a creative writing major.

It was at Knox where Hellenga caught the writing bug. Those Midwestern roots—and his travels abroad—have influenced his writing ever since. Florence, Italy, features prominently in The Sixteen Pleasures. Chicago and Texas feature in Philosophy Made Simple. Southern Illinois in Snakewoman of Little Egypt. Real-world experience in such places has gone a long way in informing Hellenga’s fiction, and so has some first-hand research.

“When I write about Chicago or Florence or Rome or Verona, I have to study it,” Hellenga says. “But when I write about the Midwest, I don’t have to study it. That’s who I am. That’s what I do.”

Indeed, Hellenga has been called a “Midwestern author” and even a “rural author”—labels he embraces. “I’m a native Midwesterner,” he says. “I’m not afraid of living in a small town. I grew up in a small town. I’ve made use of it in the novels.” Hellenga does bristle a bit, however, at the notion that “Midwestern” somehow means plain or dull. “Whatever I do is Midwestern because I’m a Midwesterner,” Hellenga says. “But there’s no need to be unsophisticated. I don’t like that stereotype of ‘simple salt of the earth’ type people.”

In fact, it is a certain level of sophistication for which Hellenga strives, as do those authors whose work inspires him. Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” stories are among those that he admires. “Those stories are effective because Keillor has laid down a base of enormous sophistication. He’s not just writing down simple stuff about simple people. I aim for something like that.”

snakewomanHellenga, whose book Snakewoman of Little Egypt was named one of the best novels of 2010 by both Washington Post and Kirkus, likely has very little to worry about when it comes to writing compelling, imaginative stories that people love. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be inspired by—and learn from—his favorite authors: Jane Smiley, with whom he shares the Midwest, and Gail Godwin, with whom he shares a publisher and an editor. “I used to think that learning from other writers meant you were inspired by other writers,” he says. “But also, you learn other very practical stuff. Like how to put together a scene that has more than two people in it. You can look at the beginning of War and Peace if you want to get an idea of how to set a scene with a hundred people.”

Reading the work of other novelists can be intimidating, but it can be inspiring at the same time. “Good writing energizes me,” he says. “A lot of these authors, they see further into things. They help me see further. I want a sense that a writer’s imagination goes beyond my own.”

philosophyNot that Hellenga is lacking in the imagination department. With novels that make snake-charmers and painting elephants completely believable, this is one Midwestern author who doesn’t have to worry about a dearth of creativity.

Thankfully, readers won’t have to wait too long to dive into Hellenga’s next creative effort. His seventh novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, is set to publish in summer 2014—less than a year away. The Confessions of Frances Godwin straddles the Midwest and Italy, locations that will be familiar to Hellenga’s fans. Now in production with Bloomsbury, the novel features a teacher, a priest, a voyage, and an affair (among other things).

Beyond that, Hellenga has a novella, The Truth About Death, in the works, and he’s working on a book about literary experience. And he’s doing all of that from his desk in western Illinois because he is, after all, a Midwestern author.

 Learn more about Robert Hellenga and his novels, and watch a video of him discussing Snakewoman of Little Egpyt.

—Kelli Christiansen

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