I am guilty again of judging a book by its cover, but I will not apologize for this occasional slip – especially when the novel offers a dramatic and heart-wrenching story of abandoned women. The Guineveres by Sarah Domet tells the story of four young girls – all named Guinevere -- abandoned by their families at a convent. The structure of the novel is also interesting. One of the Guineveres narrates, and Domet has interspersed brief lives of sometimes obscure saints, which prefigure some crises facing one or more of the young ladies. Each Guinevere also takes a turn narrating her own story in a chapter titled with her name and “Revival.” At first, I thought I was headed into a tragedy, but when I realized the story describes the courage, empathy, and friendship of the four girls, I knew I would not regret the choice of this debut novel. Domet has a Ph.D. in literature and writing from the University of Cincinnati, and she has also written a non-fiction book on writing.
The girls were nicknamed Gwen, Ginny, Win, and the narrator, Vere. I was afraid my cynicism would take over, as I predicted the story would be another horrific tale of abuse, but it was not. The nuns who supervised the girls did so with tenderness and strict discipline, and only the most egregious transgressions would merit a stay in the “Penance Room” – a time-out space for teens. The usual punishment ranged from loss of dessert at dinner up to service hours in the hospital and loss of recreational periods.
Having spent a year at a boarding school in upstate New York, I could empathize with the disappointment the girls felt when days after weeks after years went by with no contact with their families. I only suffered a few days without mail. Domet writes, “‘It doesn’t look like anything has arrived this week, dear.’ She patted the top of Ginny’s head. ‘I’m sorry.’ // ‘For me?’ I asked. I already knew the answer, and Sister Fran didn’t even pretend. // ‘Not this time,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you should write another letter,’ she suggested, then placed her arm warmly around my shoulder. ‘Better to give than receive. That’s an excellent policy to remember, don’t you think? Something therapeutic in letter writing, like baring one’s soul. The benefit is yours just by writing it’ (127). My mother saved every letter I wrote that winter, and she recently turned them over to me. What a window into that year!
The girls frequently tried to hold onto the fragile memories of the life they lost. Domet writes, “I began to imagine a story about my father’s new life in a different city: a wife and a kid, a small house just like ours. I wondered if he looked in one his new kid like he used to look in on me at night when he thought I was asleep. I’d keep my eyes closed, playing possum, because if I did, he’d stand there for a while, and I could feel the weight of his shadow above me. If he found me awake, he’d simply shut the door, his footsteps fading down the hallway” (141).
The nuns in this story recall some fond – and some not so fond – moments in my elementary school days. Years later, I found out my fifth grade teacher was 16 years old, when she arrived to teach me and about 50 of my classmates. Sister Fran always had an aphorism handy for the Guineveres. In this chapter, the old tried and true “Your body is a temple” appears. Domet writes, “‘God has loaned you these bodies, girls, like a book in the library. Do you write in the book you borrow? No. Do you place the book face-down and break the spine? I think not. You’re gentle with the book you borrow – you treat it better than you’d treat your own because you know it is not yours. We must not grow too fond of the book, for we know we must return it. But, still, this doesn’t prevent you from using the book, reading it so to speak, as long as you do so with care” (241). I could not help myself from silently answering, “Yes, Sister Michael Mary,” recalling those 5th grade days.
Sarah Domet’s first novel, The Guineveres, is a sure winner. This novel can take you back to your grade school experiences – minus the paddle and the pathos you also might have experienced. 5 stars.