The Finishing School

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In her novels and short stories. Gail Godwin has been concerned with certain recurrent themes: self-exploration and discovery, the relationship between the past and the present, sources of human creativity, acceptance of human foibles as an essential element in the creative process, and the role of family and family myths in one’s life. These strains are woven into compelling narratives which, in revealing the intellectual and emotional development of the protagonists, often lead readers into self-examination. In such previous novels as The Perfectionists (1970), The Odd Woman (1974), and A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), Godwin has presented readers with female protagonists weighing culturally approved women’s roles against individual needs. Godwin’s most recent novel, The Finishing School, features a similar protagonist. Justin Stokes differs, however, in that the source of much of her conflict lies in the past, not the present. She is literally haunted by her memory of the woman who most influenced her, a woman whose strength and iconoclastic vigor Justin has continued to admire and emulate for thirty years.

Justin determines to examine her relationship with Ursula DeVane after a particularly vivid dream in which Ursula expresses some disappointment in Justin. A believer in the language of dreams, Justin awakens to questions she has avoided, questions about the power of Ursula’s influence on her life: “Is it the dream that has its hold on me, or is it Ursula herself, after all these years?” she wonders. Her curiosity stimulated, Justin re-creates the events of her fourteenth summer. After this explanatory prologue, Godwin’s novel generally returns to the past, but this past is often punctuated by contemporary commentary as Justin balances personal history and outcome.

Re-creating herself as a thirteen-year-old, Justin recalls the circumstances that led to her move from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Clove, New York. The deaths of the beloved and respected grandparents who reared her and of her charming but feckless father, loss of social standing and financial security as well as the only home she has ever known—all this has occurred in a matter of months. Everything—including her mother, Louise—seems to have changed. Abruptly transplanted from the security of her Virginia home to an IBM housing tract in upstate New York, Justin is disoriented and resentful. Much of her resentment is reserved for her mother, but it is initially aimed at her Aunt Mona, into whose house the Stokes have moved.

Lonely and displaced, Justin explores the countryside after school and discovers a crumbling millhouse. Expecting to find a snake instead of a woman, Justin introduces herself to Ursula with a bloodcurdling scream. (Justin’s association of Ursula with a serpent is significant, for Ursula will introduce her to knowledge.) The middle-aged woman is instantly drawn to Justin, who responds to the older woman’s clever conversation.

Cultivated, provocative, intelligent, and unconventional, Ursula rekindles Justin’s interest in life’s possibilities. First, she denies the tragedy Justin has embraced, pointing out that the loss of loved ones hardly constitutes tragedy. Second, Ursula sets out to educate Justin. Many of the lessons she teaches at the millhouse, which they come to call Justin’s Finishing School, are memorable: “There are two kinds of people,” Ursula tells Justin one afternoon. “One kind, you can tell just by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves.You must be constantly on your guard, Justin, against congealing.” Ursula does not merely advise, she creates, encouraging Justin to believe that a life of art is the only possibility for her. When Justin compares the dramatic enchantment of Ursula to the defeated conformity of her mother, she transfers her confidence.

Indeed, from Justin’s perspective that summer, life seems to offer either a stultifying existence of conformity, signified by identical tract houses and magazine-inspired decor, or the invigorating gamble of individuality, represented by Ursula. Although she is enthralled by Ursula, Justin does not actually consider choosing loyalties until Ursula forces her to do so. Then, urged to make choices with consequences beyond her understanding, Justin inadvertently brings about the destruction of two people she loves.


(The entire section is 1809 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Kirkus Reviews. LII, November 15, 1984, p. 1059.

Library Journal. CX, January, 1985, p. 100.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 24, 1985, p. 2.

Ms. XIII, February, 1985, p. 75.

The New Republic. CXCII, February 25, 1985, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, January 27, 1985, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LX, February 18, 1985, p. 121.

Newsweek. CV, February 25, 1985, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 23, 1984, p. 68.

Time. CXXV, February 11, 1985, p. 87.