“My Standard”: Gail Godwin, Old Lovegood Girls

‘I’ve only had one friend in my life so far. My roommate at Lovegood College. I’d like to know why it was we clicked the way we did, and why we were always at rest in each other’s company. We were completely different people from different backgrounds. For an English assignment she wrote a story about our friendship. I was the dark one, haunted by a troubled past, and she was the light ‘ordinary’ one who hadn’t had any troubles. I made her change ‘ordinary’ to optimistic. She was the first person to arouse my competitiveness, but she also made me aware of my lack of goodness. She remains my standard for what a friend should be, though I might not ever see her again.’

I’ve read and liked a number of Gail Godwin’s novels, going back as far as The Odd Woman (1974—though of course I didn’t read it quite that long ago!) and including Evenings at Five and The Good Husband, all of which I own. A couple of her more recent ones look familiar but I find no record of them here, so maybe I considered but rejected them on bookstore outings, or maybe I read library copies and for some reason never blogged about them. (It’s a bad sign either for them or for me that I can’t remember!) Old Lovegood Girls looked like just my kind of book, especially coming from a trusted author (and with glowing blurbs from reviewers I also usually trust, like Ron Charles)—and if you think this is a set-up for a but, you’re right. Old Lovegood Girls just never clicked for me. Its paired protagonists, Merry and Feron, never came to life, and the episodic narrative felt choppy and artificial. There’s a lot of metafictional material in the novel, from the writing both Merry and Feron do, to explicit references to a lot of ‘classic’ writers. Most of these comments too felt unnatural, manufactured either to give a sense of time (like Feron’s remark that she’s reading “the English writer Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam“) or to create a general impression of literariness—for the characters and also (or so it struck me) for Godwin’s own novel.

The most important comment about writing is in an exchange between Merry and Feron almost at the end:

“I’m writing my book but it’s hard” [says Feron].

“What book?”

“The one about us.”

“How much have you done?”

“A good bit.”

“Can you talk about it?”

“I do it in short takes, like my notebook vignettes for Miss Petrie.”

Aha: so (presumably) Old Lovegood Girls is the result? But I’m not sure (or, not convinced) because there’s material in it—about their teachers, for example—that I don’t think Feron could know. Maybe she just made it up? Or had sources, the way her insights into Merry’s point of view are justified by her acquisition of Merry’s notebooks? At any rate, that comment about vignettes explains the rather scattered quality of Old Lovegood Girls, which is basically continuous, chronological, but made up of parts that never feel quite finished or complete.

Despite that, there were things I enjoyed about this novel. The whole set-up is a good one: a friendship formed at a time when the girls’ identities and futures are still not fixed (not yet ‘set in jello,’ as they aptly describe an older person’s life) and then tracked across the decades. I think one reason it seemed thin and unconvincing to me is that I reread Disturbances in the Field so recently and, for me anyway, Schwartz’s novel is just richer and also riskier. The other novel this called to mind is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart: like Boyd’s, Godwin’s story gains weight as it goes on, simply because we have been with its characters for so long and through so much, and there is an intrinsic poignancy in that kind of ‘beginning to end’ narrative. Unlike Boyd, though, I felt Godwin was striving for it; reading Any Human Heart, the pathos crept up on me and eventually was quite powerful.

Stories about long-lasting friendships can also tap into emotions that are ours, not theirs, and in this case Godwin’s novel did benefit from the way it made me think about my own oldest friends, one close and dear since high school, two close and dear since university. None of us are much like either Merry or Feron, but we have been separated geographically for a long time now, as Godwin’s “girls” are, and that means that for decades we have maintained our closeness through correspondence, telephone, and occasional visits. Since COVID, which ruined my plans for a nice long trip to Vancouver in summer 2020, we have stepped up our phone conversations, and that has been really great. Old Lovegood Girls did make me think about what makes some friendships last and others fade. Feron and Merry are, as my opening quotation shows, set up as foil characters, but despite their contrasts Godwin does not develop them as antagonists, which was a relief. One of the (many) things I found alienating about “Ferrante fever” was the tendency to declare that Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet had captured something essential, even universal, about “female friendship,” as if there is any one version of it. I have never been—and hope never to be in—a relationship like Lila and Elena’s! I am so grateful that these three friendships have survived so much time and distance. Something I think Godwin really gets right is that, precious as newer friendships also are, there’s an ease about being with (or talking with) someone who knows your history, and who therefore doesn’t just see who and where you are but also understands how you got there.

2 thoughts on ““My Standard”: Gail Godwin, Old Lovegood Girls

  1. kerryclare June 8, 2021 / 3:31 pm

    My next novel is about two best friends over a few decades! Curious what you’ll think of it! I love this line, “One of the (many) things I found alienating about “Ferrante fever” was the tendency to declare that Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet had captured something essential, even universal, about “female friendship,” as if there is any one version of it. ” This is so true!

    • Rohan Maitzen June 8, 2021 / 5:36 pm

      That’s a great kind of novel: I’m excited to see what you do with the set-up.

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