As this novel opens, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, in her eighties in the year 2001 and the former headmistress of a Catholic girls’ school, is about to write a memoir and school history. She is particularly concerned about confronting her memories of the class of 1951. The narrative skips back and forth chronologically from that year when we meet two students, Tildy and Maud, whose intense friendship seems to be dissolving, then back to 2001, and then finally to 2008, when we glimpse Tildy, Maud, and other former students in their later years.
The relationships between girls at school, between girls and their mothers and teachers, and between nuns are the focus of the novel; they are beautifully conveyed. The characters are well-drawn and easy to empathize with despite their warts. The reader gets a strong sense of their spiritual lives, their guilt, and their blind spots. However, the pace of this novel is quite slow, with some events being repeatedly discussed or viewed from the perspectives of different characters at different times. The drama and conflict are understated, and my interest was definitely lagging by the middle third of the book. There is an enormous build-up to a school play in 1951. We know that something happened that was so shattering that the headmistress had to take her only leave of absence from the school right afterwards and is still brooding about it fifty years later. The actual event falls short of what I anticipated. I was left with a sense of anticlimax. The author’s skill in conveying subtle nuances of character shines, but this novel did not fully satisfy me as a reader.