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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1639

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...

(This entire section contains 1639 words.)

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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 with Ben Macgruder through flashbacks. The reader is also shown Margaret’s experience in New York when, having graduated from college, she chooses to join Madelyn and spend two years as her assistant while waiting for permission to go on to seminary. The reader also learns of Madelyn’s friendship with her other apprentice, Shaun, the death of her father, and Shaun’s decline due to AIDS. All of this helps the reader understand Margaret’s state of mind and spirit at the opening of the novel.

During the Advent season of 1999, the last year of the millennium, a number of major and minor events clarify, inform, and form Margaret’s future life. One central event is the resumption of marital relations between Adrian and Margaret. Prior to the opening of the book, Margaret suffers a miscarriage, plunging Adrian into a deep depression from which he briefly emerges before the death of his friend, the headmaster and founder of his school, prompts a relapse. The result is impotence. However, on this evening, through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, they are able to come together, and unknown to them, conceive the daughter who will be the recipient of the narrative.

Also important are the discovery of Adrian’s father and the “adoption” of Chase Zorn, despite the alcoholism and destructiveness aimed at both himself and anyone who tries to help him. Then there are interactions with central characters such as Grace Munger and Gus Eubanks, as well as with minor characters such as Helen Britt, a woman passing through the area whose husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, all of which allow the reader to see how Margaret’s faith works (and work indeed it does) and of what it consists. This novel works on at least three levels, as an enthralling story, as the exploration of realistic, interesting, and compelling characters, and as a contemplation of faith for the beginning of the millennium.

What does Godwin seem to be saying in Evensong about how we should live our lives? That is not an unwarranted question for this work, nor is it a side issue, because it is clear that she is, if not preaching, at least making some serious suggestions. Certainly one concept which stands out through the story of Grace Munger is that we should live and let live. Grace is obviously a disturbed woman who must have everyone on her side in order to feel verified. Her harassment of Margaret as she tries to induce her to support her March for the Millennium makes it clear that despite her supposed direct line to God, she doubts her own calling and needs others to validate her importance. Margaret’s steadfast refusal to commit her church to a march she feels is wrongheaded and ultimately destructive proves to be the correct approach; her consistent attempts to refuse gently and with kindness may prove problematic for her but present an ideal for the reader to follow. It is Grace’s insistence on forcing herself on others that creates her problems.

Another related point strongly stressed in the text is that the way to solve the problems facing our communities, nation, and world at this time is not necessarily to demonstrate publicly. As Margaret puts it,

We need less display and more unassuming deeds behind the scenes. . . . Nothing is going to change significantly in this community, or any other, until each of us makes room for God’s kingdom inside ourselves and lets it change us from within.

It is clear that Margaret believes that marches for Christ can only be divisive, whereas working day to day on one’s own spirituality and attempting to do what one can within one’s own range, to cultivate one’s own garden, is how the truly meaningful change will come about. This is demonstrated throughout the novel by examples: Adrian’s work with Chase, Margaret’s and Mrs. Britt’s effects on each other, and Margaret’s quiet listening, which helps each person with whom she comes into contact, such as Gus, Mr. Zorn, Jennifer, and Lois Lord. Godwin illustrates that the small yet meaningful aid that we can give our neighbor is where we can make a difference.

Finally, the novel explores a spiritual quest, the search for answers to the oldest, earliest, yet newest questions in the universe, whatever the millennium. Why are we here? What is our purpose? How should we live? What is God and how can we serve a higher being? What is the meaning of life and the universe? Although the major questor is the narrator, Margaret Bonner, the reader sees this search worked out, positively or negatively, in the desperate destructiveness of Chase, in Grace’s lack of grace, in Jennifer’s attempt to control the world around her, in Adrian’s insecurities and misguided direction of energies, and in many other characters, large and small.

Gail Godwin’s novel is a fascinating tour de force, a powerful, discerning exploration of life, which tells a story filled with compelling characters, spiritual suspense (what is the way to pray outlined in the Charles Williams novel? what is Margaret’s secret that she keeps thinking of sharing with Adrian, yet keeps holding back?), love and death, sex and violence, and on top of it all, some suggestions on how the readers might best live their lives to attain happiness and peace at the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (November 15, 1998): 547.

The Christian Science Monitor 91 (March 18, 1999): 19.

Library Journal 123 (December, 1998): 154.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 4, 1999): 8.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 4, 1999): 69.

Time 153 (March 29, 1999): 216.