(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Evensong is a deeply moving exploration of issues confronting a woman who is trying as best she can to live according to God’s will as she understands it. At the same time it is a love story, an account of a spiritual quest, and a fascinating look at morals and mores at the beginning of the millennium. Margaret Bonner loves her husband, believes in her work, and desires to serve her church and its congregation to the best of her abilities. In this novel she narrates the story of the final two months of 1999 for the edification of the child conceived during this highly charged and profoundly difficult transition.

When the novel opens, Margaret Bonner is struggling with the difficulties created by the deep depression into which her husband Adrian has fallen as the result of the death of his dear friend and the former headmaster of the progressive school at which he served as a counselor. Now thrust into the headmastership while a replacement is sought, Adrian suffers from grave insecurities and self-doubt. The couple have endured the loss of their first child due to a miscarriage and have only just begun to recover when this new disaster strikes.

On the fateful evening at the start of the book, Margaret prepares the service for her friend Gus’s wedding, reveals to Gus the experience of her own wedding night to dispel her friend’s fears, offers hospitality to the aged and mysterious “Brother Tony,” who arrives unexpectedly and is later revealed as Adrian’s long-lost father, and meets the fanatical Grace Munger for the first time. This momentous evening ends with Adrian returning from the school, where he had planned to spend the night. He is wet and exhausted from chasing teenage Chase Zorn, on whom he had pinned high hopes for recovery but who has gotten drunk on communion wine. In a moment of happy abandon, Margaret and Adrian resume their marital relations, which have suffered a six-month hiatus, and conceive the putative audience for this narrative.

Following this intensely significant night, the novel describes the Advent season at the end of the millennium through the eyes of Margaret, delineating her spiritual struggles as she deals with the addition of an old man and a teenager to her household, with a husband who is so racked with his own insecurities he cannot offer her much help, with a fanatic who is so determined to have her way she is willing to twist the truth and manipulate everyone who comes in contact with her, and with revelations about both her own and her husband’s personal history. Side issues include a dear friend slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, the friend’s alcoholic husband, her best friend’s incubus, who happens to be gay and involved with her cousin, and a host of other tangled and real-life issues.

What is most powerful about this novel is the deeply spiritual, contemplative mood of it. Along with an engrossing plot, Godwin creates a study of an internal struggle which is the heart not only of Margaret Bonner but also of the novel itself. Few contemporary works of fiction use prayer as an ongoing motif without losing momentum, yet this book does. By creating a narrator who is an Episcopal priest, Godwin has of course made it feasible that the issues of God, worship, prayer, and service will be of moment, but she also makes them fascinating for the reader.

This is a sequel to Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991), but it is not necessary to have read that novel to understand this one, because much of the plot of the earlier work is cleverly alluded to here to fill in the first-time reader. The reader is reminded of Margaret’s mother’s defection when Margaret was a child of six; her mother went to New York with Madelyn Fahey, an artist who centers her work on the debunking of religious beliefs and was killed shortly thereafter in a car accident in Europe. The reader is given glimpses of this, as well as Margaret’s relationship with her father, her original experience with Adrian, and her affair...

(The entire section is 1639 words.)