The Finishing School: A Novel by Gail GodwinThe Finishing School: A Novel by Gail Godwin

The Finishing School: A Novel

byGail Godwin

Paperback | April 20, 1999

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Justin Stokes would never forget the summer she turned fourteen, nor the woman who transformed her bleak adolescent life into a wondrous place of brilliant color. In the little pondside hut also known as the “finishing school,” eccentric, free-spirited Ursula DeVane opened up a world full of magical possibilities for Justin, teaching her valuable lessons of love and loyalty, and encouraging her to change, to learn, to grow. But the lessons of the finishing school have their dark side as well, as Justin learns how deep friendship can be shattered by shocking, unforgivable betrayal.
Gail Godwin has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 1981 Award in Literature from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Three of her critically acclaimed novels, The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and A Mother and Two Daughters, were nominated for the National Book Award. Her other highly praised books include Evensong,...
Title:The Finishing School: A NovelFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:352 pages, 8 × 5 × 0.74 inShipping dimensions:8 × 5 × 0.74 inPublished:April 20, 1999Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345431901

ISBN - 13:9780345431905


Read from the Book

I.   Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane. We were sitting on the crumbling threshold of The Finishing School, and she was telling me something in her rich and compelling voice. Then, suddenly, the sky turned an ominous color, the pond shivered like a live thing, the old pines hissed and swayed, and hard rain pelted down.   “Let’s make a run for it!” said Ursula, tensing her body for the dash.   “But why?” I asked. “We’ll get soaked. Why not sit here and wait it out?”   “Ah, Justin,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulders and giving me a shake. “Haven’t I taught you anything? Didn’t you learn anything from me?”   She leapt up and hurled herself boldly into the storm. Lightning cracked all around her. She was wet to the skin before she had even reached the far side of the pond. I huddled in the shelter of The Finishing School and watched with mounting despair as her figure grew smaller and dimmer in the downpour. I knew if I did not jump up and run after her now that I would lose her forever. But I was powerless to move.   When I woke, I could still feel the pressure of her touch on my shoulders. I could hear the pitch of her tender, teasing voice. All day I have gone around under the spell of that dream.   Is it the dream that has its hold on me, or is it Ursula herself, after all these years? In the dream we were the same age, both young girls; yet when I knew Ursula, that single summer, she was a woman of forty-four and I had just turned fourteen.   All day I have wondered whether I would want to see the real Ursula again, even if I knew where to find her. She would be seventy this year, if she is still alive. How would I feel about her now? Would she be very changed? Or would she, regardless of age and of the hardships she may have suffered since that summer’s end, still retain the power to bewitch my imagination? Would her voice still enchant with its melody and its challenge? How would she feel about me? Would she be glad to see me, or would what happened at the end of the summer have eclipsed our friendship and made her bitter and angry? If I were to see her again, what would I say?   (Ursula, which were the true parts and which parts did you make up? Do you know, I am still trying to sort out which was which?   You’ll be gratified to hear—at least, I hope you will—that I did choose a life in the arts. “Your soul craves that constant heightening of reality only art can give,” you told me one afternoon, down at the old stone hut by the pond, which you called my “Finishing School,” where you enthralled me with tales of your past and planted aspirations in me.   I’m sorry for the way I behaved at the end. The older I get, the more cruel that behavior seems. Yet, at the time, I was unable to behave any other way.   If you hadn’t materialized that summer, I would have had to invent someone like you. If I hadn’t come along, whom would you have invented? A girl like me? Or would just any gullible audience have served your purpose?   For what it’s worth, you left your mark on me. Despite everything that happened, I have absorbed you. As long as I live, you live in me. Sometimes I hear myself speak in your voice. And, as you did, I watch its effects on others.)   I am a great respecter of dreams. Many turning points in my life have been heralded by dreams. A few have actually occurred in dreams. I believe that dreams transport us through the undersides of our days, and that if we wish to become acquainted with the dark side of what we are, the signposts are there, waiting for us to translate them. Dreams say what they mean, but they don’t say it in daytime language.   A friend tells me she dreams regularly of a girl named Megan, whom she hated in grammar school. But over the years, in these dreams, Megan has grown up along with my friend, and they have become important to each other. My friend says she actually looks forward to her Megan dreams. In these dreams, after an initial animosity, the two get together and reveal how they have always secretly admired each other and wanted to be friends. Each shows striking insights into the other’s nature and confides to her what strengths she has been jealous of all these years. The two of them discover they are opposites of the same self.   “But what about the real Megan?” I asked her. “Have you ever tried to get in touch with her again?”   “Good heavens, no.” My friend laughed. “I’m sure she grew up to be a horrible person.”   Which is to say: I won’t hire a detective to go in search of a real seventy-year-old woman, who might still be found. (And who, perhaps, would retain her power to shatter or elude all my ideas of the kind of seventy-year-old woman she might have become, just as, during that summer, she was never as I expected her to be, from visit to visit.) But I will attend to what her image, playing its role in last night’s dream, came to tell me. This is not the first time I have dreamed of Ursula DeVane. I dreamed of her on the night of the day I met her, and many times since. I will probably be dreaming about her for the rest of my life. She, along with a few others, has claimed a permanent place in the theater of my unconscious, where each figure—based wholly or in part on some real person—has its function.   When Ursula appears in a dream, it is usually to stir things up.   “There are two kinds of people,” she once decreed to me emphatically. “One kind, you can tell just by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keep moving, changing. With these people, you can never say, ‘X stops here,’ or, ‘Now I know all there is to know about Y.’ That doesn’t mean they’re unstable. Ah, no, far from it. They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard, Justin, against congealing. Don’t be lulled by your youth. Though middle age is the traditional danger point, I suspect that many a fourteen-year-old has congealed during the long history of this world. If you ever feel it coming, you must do something quickly.…”   Over the years, her vivid figure of speech has stayed in my mind. “Am I congealing?” I ask myself. “Am I getting stuck in a role, repeating myself?” Or I will think, Poor So-and-So has congealed, gathering his same old themes around him like a shroud and being content to embroider them. I wonder if he knows it.   What would I be like if I congealed? Would I know it? Would I go on doing my work? Would others know?   The Ursulas of the world would.   “It’s too bad about Justin,” I can hear her say, launching into that musical tone she used when taking apart people’s characters or summing up their fates. “When I knew Justin, she was just a young girl with large, questing eyes and very brown legs from riding her bicycle away from a house that was boring her to death. She was new to our village; she was disoriented. She had lost all the props that defined her. At the time we met, she saw herself as the victim of Tragedy: in a relatively short period, she had lost the grandparents who raised her, her father, and then her home. That is a lot to lose, of course, but hardly Tragedy to someone like myself, whose family contretemps would have kept Sophocles and Ibsen scribbling around the clock if they’d lived in our neighborhood. No, there are things much more tragic than the deaths of pleasant, unexceptional people and having to start all over in a new place.   “The girl’s situation interested me, however. I have always been drawn to stories in which people have to start over. I saw immediately that, for all her sadness and disorientation, this girl was determined to escape the ordinary and had the intelligence to see that I was her best bet in the village. So you might say I was initially flattered by her recognition—one is taught by experience to put a premium on those few people who can appreciate you for what you are—and then I grew fonder of her as the summer progressed. There was a sweet, old-fashioned gravity about her; unlike most young people, she listened well. I loved to watch her face as she listened, and also when she struggled to articulate her thoughts. She was not as eloquent as she wanted to be, but she was better than she knew. I did what I could for her: fed her mind and stoked her desire for the larger life. If she hadn’t burst in on me that summer, who else could have done it for her? Yes, I take my share of the credit for what she has become. Not that she ever thanked me for it. And she was very cruel at the last.   “I’m sorry, all the same, that she is in danger of congealing. She doesn’t know where I am, but I’ve kept up with my old protégée, and I’m sad to say she shows signs of falling into complacency, that alarming early warning signal of congealment. She’s done well, of course, but to reach the range and intensity I have seen others capable of, she must tap new sources of feeling. Or old sources which she turned away from at the end of that summer, when she was afraid and confused. Ah, Justin, if you were to come riding over to me again, I would stir up your blood. ‘Don’t you recall,’ I would say, ‘how I warned you to be alert for the first signs of jellification? How you must fight, the moment you feel its clammy grip. You must hurl yourself into action, take some new risk. Remember my ancestors, the Sires DeVeine; how, every spring, when the snows melted, they roused themselves from the snug stronghold of all their old trophies and triumphs and rode boldly down the Jura Pass looking for trouble?   “ ‘When did you last leave your stronghold, Justin? When was the last time you went out alone, forsaking all the props that have come to define you?’ ”  

Bookclub Guide

1. The Finishing School begins, “Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” which is reminiscent of the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed of Manderley.” Is a dream a good starting point for a story? Imagine one of your own dreams. How would you develop it? How does Godwin proceed? (I count nine different tacks she takes in the first six pages before preparing herself for the mantra “Fourteen. Be fourteen again.”)2. On page 3, the narrator admits, “I won’t hire a detective to go in search of a real seventy-year old woman . . . But I will attend to what her image, playing its role in last night’s dream, came to tell me.” real person—has its function.” Can you imagine any characters with whomJustin might have engaged but whom Godwin weeded out? Are there any characters she included whom she could have left out?3. When Aunt Mona dives to pick up a piece of food that Jem, Justin’s brother, had dropped at dinner, Justin gives her mother a look to distinguish “Our Way of Life” from “Theirs.” You can gain insight into the way of life represented in a novel’s universe by asking yourself what the book or its characters have to say about a variety of key topics: religion, politics, the arts and literature, mass media, social class, race, gender, aging, the natural world, human nature, sex, current events, community, crime and punishment, etc.4. Adolescents do not write many great novels, so we have to trust adults to create adolescent states of mind retrospectively. How accurately does Godwin do it? What aspects of adolescence would an Justin’s awareness of and involvement with sexuality, starting with the Cristiana poltroon farm.5. When Justin receives her grandmother’s pearl necklace, initiating her into womanhood, she muses, “There was a lonely, mysterious side of myself I was just beginning to know, a side neither masculine nor feminine but quivering with intimations of mental and spiritual things.” Does the focus on sex stunt other developmental needs in teenagers?6. There are some good passages for studying the nature of Justin’s confusion. On page 79, you read that Justin goes up to the old farmhouse and paints an Ursula-like figure whom she then consults as an oracle. Upon returning home and being swallowed by circumstances there, her painted figure begins to look like one of the mindless milkmaids on her wallpaper—her newly forming self, she thinks. Can a person see his or her fate? How clearly does Justin do so?7. Also, look at page 99. Justin senses the magic of her visit to the DeVanes draining from her as Aunt Mona defends her. How many people are fighting for Justin’s allegiance? Who is Justin if she is not any of the people others think she is? On page 105, Justin thinks she might be a monster manipulating others in order to get her mother to move back to Virginia. Could she be a monster? Where does her goodnesslie? This is a question that the grown-up Justin asks on page 106 as she looks back at her fourteen-year-old self.8. Make a list of the music cited in the novel, get the recordings, and play them. How do they affect your experience of reading and remembering the novel, if at all?9. Satire lovers, how much satire can you take? How much satire is there in The Finishing School? Does it serve its role well? Would you want more? If there were more, how would that change the novel? Can you think of a novel that has a lot more satire in it? What is that novel missing that The Finishing School has? Look at the first instance of satire in The Finishing School, on pages 23 through 35. (Also, see other satiric passages on pages 146, 200–201, 213–16, 265, and 269–70.) Notice how Godwin introduces Aunt Mona’s household—with a seemingly banal conversation that, nonetheless, introduces a lot of information and thematic notes.10. We know that when Godwin introduces a subplot or anecdote, it has a double edge. For example, late in the book, Ursula makes Justin question the admirability of her grandfather’s statement about his wife—“the only woman . . . who would behave exactly the same way if nobody were looking.” Note the subplots in the novel and puzzle over their double meaning. You can start with the story of how Justin’s mother had eloped (pages 32–33).11. If you were to write a story in the manner of Gail Godwin, what would be the features you would include? In the preceding interview, Godwin says that one of her major motivations for writing is to understand what goes on in others’ minds. In what ways is empathy an active attribute of Godwin’s characters as well as of herself as narrator?12. How do characters who are good at empathy fare and how do ones who are not? Look at Aunt Mona and the wallpaper and curtains she puts in Justin’s room as an act of empathy. Look at Justin’s mother and judge whether she is indeed to be condemned for not knowing her daughter’s mind. Look at Ursula and her uses of empathy. Rate characters on their levels of empathy. See if you agree with your fellow readers.13. In representing characters’ states of mind, Godwin does not stick to linear narrative. How would you represent a character’s mental activity? (Try tracking your own.) Find a passage in which Godwin uses flashbacks, reflections, wishes, and actions to dramatize a character. Do you find this exciting? Pleasing? If you take out everything but the drama, with what do you end up, greater or lesser suspense?14. Justin moves from a Virginia town to an upstate New York one. Godwin lives in New York State, but grew up in the South. Is she a Southern writer? Does her writing have Southern qualities, or does she represent the South in her work? (See page 65.)15. How would you interpret the dream about the magician and the grass-overgrown house on page 43?16. Look at a passage of dialogue—pages 53 through 56, for instance. What are the dynamics? Godwin lets you examine how people jockey for position through their conversation, no matter how light it is. How do they do so in this passage? Justin’s mother tells the story about Justin’s experience at a riding stable. The owner advises Justin to let the horse know who’s boss, and Justin replies, “Oh, he already knows, sir.” As with horses, so with people, no?17. Somehow, you’re going to have to deal with the character of Abel Cristiana. Try to remember as many things as you can about him. Is he a bully? (See page 205.) Why is Ursula attracted to him? What do you make of his World War II experiences (page 66)?18. Godwin says that she keeps track of her characters so that no major character ends up sitting offstage too long. After a while, a character has to assert him- or herself. When and how does Justin’s mother assert herself? Does she assert herself enough? See Chapter IV, for instance.19. Would you call The Finishing School a symbolic novel? For instance, there are the birthday presents Justin gets—the blue bottle (from Ursula) and her grandmother’s pearl necklace (from her mother). These are intentionally symbolic items. What about dream symbolism? Finally, what about the symbolism of actual things, such as the demolished farmhouse and the murky pond? Don’t be literary, be real. Does symbolism have an effect on people’s lives?20. What’s the deal with Ursula’s first lover, the European with the same family name? Does the DeVane family have a condition, inflicted by history? What does Justin mean, on page 198, when she says that dining with the DeVanes was like “being abducted into a community of ghosts”? How does this aspect of the story compare to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”?21. Mr. Mott, as a character, comes to life late in the book. Did you dismiss him as an uninteresting character at first? Do you believe that any character—or person—can make an interesting subject for a story? What might be interesting about Joan Dibble?22. Chapter VII is a good chapter to look at to see how Godwin uses foreshadowing (see pages 166 and 171). Grown-up Justin returns to the scene of the “crime” and gives hints about things to come. Why does Godwin leave the big revelation until the end—for just dramatic reasons? Is it so terrible that Justin can’t admit it? What might be the parts that Justin can’t bring herself to admit?23. Have you ever known a brilliantly manipulative person? What techniques did he or she use? Does Ursula use those tricks? Can you be attracted to such a person and hold your own?24. Writing experts say that the most important element in a story is voice, and that the most important element in voice is authority. You’ve got to believe and trust your main speaker. But what if there is more than one main speaker? Do any voices compete with Justin’s for authority? What other voices made an impression on you in The Finishing School? Ursula takes over the first-person voice for a good portion of Chapters IX and X. How would it be if she had narrated the novel? Where do you think she ended up?25. Do you agree with Ursula’s need for perpetual youth and her motto, “As long as you yearn, you can’t congeal”?26. On page 245, Ursula confesses to Justin that her mother haunts her and she feels condemned to relive her mother’s life. Is this a common condition, being haunted and falling into a fateful pattern? Can you see it in yourself? Does The Finishing School give us warnings about what may happen to us, or models on how people break away from such influences?27. Does Godwin draw special significance from the double meaning of the word “finishing” in “the finishing school”?28. Starting on page 289, when Justin considers how she might have responded differently than she did to Julian’s despairing talk, do you see any paths for her other than the one that the plot (fate?) requires?

From Our Editors

Justin Stokes will never forget the summer she turned 14 or the woman who brought her dull existence to life. Eccentric and free-spirited Ursula DeVane taught her more than she’d learn at what she called her "finishing" school. Ursula opened a world of love and loyalty and encouraged her to grow, learn and change. But these lessons have a dark side as Justin is about to learn in award-winning author Gail Godwin’s The Finishing School.

Editorial Reviews

"Stunning . . . Irresistible."—Time "GODWIN PROVES HERSELF ONE OF AMERICA'S FOREMOST WRITERS IN THE FINISHING SCHOOL. . . . A profound novel with characters close to the heart."—The Philadelphia Inquirer"COMPELLING, WELL CRAFTED . . . A psychological detective story with dramatic revelations of character and event."—Chicago Tribune"FINELY NUANCED, COMPASSIONATE . . . The Finishing School is a wise contribution to the literature of growing up."—The New York Times Book Review"ALLURING . . . GENTLE, IRONIC, INTENSE, AND EMOTIONAL FICTION."—People