A review of Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Old Lovegood Girls
by Gail Godwin
Bloomsbury Publishing
Hardcover : 352 pages, ISBN-13 : 978-1632868220, May 5, 2020

In Old Lovegood Girls, Gail Godwin further explores a theme that has appeared in her earlier novels, particularly in The Odd Woman (1974); The Finishing School (1984), and Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991). In all three of these books, and now in her latest work, she examines women’s friendships.  At Lovegood College, a fictional women’s junior college in North Carolina, two eighteen year olds forge a friendship that endures for half a century. Feron Hood and Merry Jellicoe, who meet as roommates in 1958, find that their very opposite backgrounds attract. The novel is mostly presented from the point of view of each, in turn.

Merry, from a prosperous tobacco farming family, has a sunny nature. When Feron confides some details of her unhappy childhood and adolescence, sympathetic Merry admits  that the worst thing that ever happened to her was her dog dying.  Their English professor, who introduces them to Chekhov, inspires both girls to write short stories. These very first attempts contain the seeds of what they will continue to write.  Just into their first year, their budding friendship is cut short when a family tragedy requires Merry to go home, take care of her twelve year old brother, and run the family business with the aid of the farm manager.  In the years that follow, Feron and Merry are  often in each other’s thoughts, though their correspondence is sporadic and they seldom see each other. Each asks herself what the other would do in a given situation.  As Lovegood alumnae, they are in each other’s “auras of reference”.

Although Feron never becomes a “people person”, the understanding and friendship she receives from Merry are key in helping her come to terms with her life with her alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather. When she’s seventeen her mother has a household fall, hits her head and dies.  Since her stepfather frequently batters both her and her mother, Feron, who is in class when the death occurs, accuses her stepfather of killing her mother.  His alibi is solid and verifiable by others, so the verdict is accidental death. He has custody of Feron, and her marks plummet in her final year of high school because of his sexual abuse. When she turns eighteen she steals his stash of money in the house and gets on a bus to Chicago, with no clear plan for her future. When a fellow passenger suggests that she go to her late father’s brother in Pullen, North Carolina to ask for help, she takes his advice, is welcomed with open arms, and has her life turned around.

After college, Feron becomes an editor in New York and writes in the evenings, trying to shape her early experiences into a novel. The creative process is a recurrent theme in Godwin’s novels. In Violet Clay (1978) there are two creative artists, a painter and a writer. In The Finishing School and Father Melancholy’s Daughter the creative persons are actors.  Writers are major characters  in Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983); The Good Husband (1994); Queen of the Underworld (2006) and now in greater depth, in Old Lovegood Girls.

Though Feron has plenty of material to write about, initially she has difficulty in finding the best way to present it.  Her first novel is rejected by seven publishers.  She feels deeply competitive with other writers and has mixed feelings when Merry has a short story in a prestigious magazine. Eventually, a writing instructor at Columbia University tells her to stop worrying about what the “sponsors” (agents, publishers, editors and critics) want.   To get out of her own way, she should let her mind drift, and write what comes naturally. Feron’s successful third novel, drawn from her memories of her brief marriage, grows in the way her teacher recommended.

Godwin also explores the fictions that people tell themselves and others.  When Feron and Merry are in their late twenties, Merry comes to New York for a day to see her agent and spends a few hours with Feron.  When Feron tells Merry about her first novel’s rejection, she says, untruthfully, that one of the seven publishers rejected it because it lacked sex scenes. In reality it was rejected because she hadn’t yet found the best approach, but she can’t admit it as she is jealous that Merry got published in  The Atlantic.  On this same occasion, Merry tells Feron that she has had skin cancers removed from her forehead, but never connects her health issue with the fact that she runs a tobacco farm, even though she’s aware of the anti-smoking health campaign going on.

Can a writer be a good person (love what is good) and use others’ lives as material?  For her second novel, Feron uses Merry’s farm setting and some of the family information she shared with her. When Merry reads the novel, she feels used and robbed, but never says so to Feron.  Merry, who writes in the evenings when her farm administrative duties are done, is scrupulous about not hurting others. Her short story in the famous magazine was published under a pseudonym because it was set in her rural milieu with some of the characters inspired by her neighbours and employees. Though an agent wants her to write more about this setting under her real name, she decides not to, so as not to upset those close to her.

Merry is also scrupulous about cultural appropriation. After she publishes an article about an African American slave who invented gold leaf tobacco, she thinks about writing an historical novel about him, but decides she has no right to tell his story. Her initial research brings her  into closer contact with the local African American community, however, and leads to meaningful, enduring friendships with the women in a Bible study group.  As time passes Merry finds herself writing notebooks full of vignettes and impressions, but  chooses not to have a writing career.

Both Merry and Feron benefit from letting each other know what is happening in their lives, but both have things they cannot confide to each other.  The theme of secrecy is well executed in Godwin’s Flora (2013) in which a grandmother tells a child a sanitized version of the family history. Expertly, Godwin dropped hints that another story lay beneath the surface one. Similarly, the secrets in Old Lovegood Girls, revealed in enticing dribs and drabs, keep the reader intrigued.  What actually transpired between Feron and the passenger on the bus when she ran away in 1958?  Was it really seasonal depression that caused Merry’s mother to withdraw to her attic room in winter? Each of these secrets could have been the plot of an entire novel. One wishes sometimes while reading Old Lovegood Girls that the author hadn’t packed so much into this one book but had used the material for at least two more novels.

Nevertheless, the theme of women’s friendship, with its undercurrent of jealousy and competitiveness, is  well worth exploring.  Are Merry and Feron more than friends? No, although there are lesbians in the novel – two of the women professors at Lovegood College.  Feron and Merry both marry older men, and neither marriage is exactly the stuff a young girl’s dreams are made of. After Feron’s marriage is cut short by tragedy, her longest relationship with a man is her friendship with her gay writing instructor, who is instrumental in her success. Merry has a long-term off-again, on-again affair with a man who feels guilty about it, and finally proposes to him so that he can feel right about their relationship. Then,  shortly before his death she finds out a devastating truth about him. A loving relationship with a male relative of Feron’s sustains Merry through health issues, but during the biggest challenge of her life, she needs Feron’s presence too.  By the time they reach their sixties, the two old Lovegood girls have learned to love well.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta is at work on her stand-alone sequel to her 2019 novel, Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, we Baico, info@baico.ca)

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