Reviewed for the Washington Post by Mary Doria Russell
The worldwide success of the Harry Potter series has led to a great emphasis on Young Adult crossover novels in contemporary publishing. Wizards, werewolves, vampires and teen warriors have dominated sales for some time now because readers (even those long past their second decade) find the books engrossing.
There are memorable characters, though they are barely pubescent and still absorbed by the question, “Who am I?” There is love, though it’s restricted to a rom-com arc (meet cute; overcome obstacles; night of bliss, seven or eight books later). There are ethical dilemmas as adolescents seek a noble path through worlds where Evil has a capital E.
Into this literary high school comes Robert Hellenga’s immensely satisfying novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin.
This is an adult book and by “adult” I don’t mean tediously pornographic. As in Hellenga’s earlier novels (Sixteen Pleasures; Philosophy Made Simple; Snakewoman of Little Egypt) the main characters are academics past middle age with a lifetime of experience to draw on. They confront nuanced ethical dilemmas. They know that any action they take will have unintended consequences.
Frances Godwin is a Latin teacher; her husband Paul is a Shakespeare scholar at a small Midwestern college. Their love, nearly four decades old, is full of daily pleasures as they sail toward retirement.
The first confession Frances makes is that this solid, satisfying relationship began as an adulterous student-professor affair that was an unpardonable betrayal of Paul’s first wife, a nice woman who’d always been kind to Frances.
Now, Frances’s own marriage is ending. At 67, Paul is dying of lung cancer and he is no stoic as his world contracts to the length of his oxygen hose. Frances makes another confession: she sometimes stays late at work to escape Paul’s crabby decline.
The couple’s last months together are further blighted by enduring worry about daughter Stella, a failed poet who’s married a wholly unsuitable man. Frances understands Jimmy’s bad boy allure. He projects “an air of menace, cocksureness, beating you back with his eyes and his tattoos,” giving off “a kind of hum, like a sports care idling, waiting for the light to change.”
Like many battered women, Stella sticks with her hostile, violent ex-con out of loyalty, love, and fear. The Godwins ache for their child, as do many aging couples who must watch passively while grown offspring make catastrophic decisions. But what can they do, beyond hoping for the best and keeping lines of communication open?
Things come to a head when son-in-law Jimmy gets out of jail — again — and this time he becomes a direct threat to the Godwins, demanding money, threatening to take it out on Stella if they don’t comply; stealing Paul’s beloved sports car; invading their home to wreck a valuable chandelier out of pointless malice.
At Paul’s insistence, Frances changes the locks, gets a guard dog, installs a security system, and buys a gun to keep by the bed. Paul dies and Frances is adjusting to widowhood when she gets the phone call she’s always dreaded. Stella is in a hospital, recovering from concrete-flayed skin, broken bones and a traumatic miscarriage after Jimmy pushed her out of a moving vehicle at 40 m.p.h. on an interstate exit ramp.
Frances knows where to find Jimmy and she has a gun. With cool deliberation, she tracks him down and looks this proven, unrepentant menace in the eye with her own finger on the trigger of a .38 caliber pistol.
The sudden, irreversible finality of a violent death is one of Hellenga’s themes but in earlier novels, violence comes as a blow from beyond: a terrorist attack, a car wreck. This time, he follows his character into her own cold and murderous anger.
I found the result gripping and unpredictable. Like Frances, I am a little old gray-haired lady, well-educated and well-traveled, with a calm cerebral life. Like Frances, I grew up with guns. Like her, I am aware of my capacity for Homeric rage when somebody hurts someone I love. But could I pull that trigger? I don’t know.
Neither does Frances until the moment comes. Then she lives with her decision. More confessions follow: to her lawyer, to her priest, to God, and to those read this fine novel.
As in Hellenga’s earlier work, secondary characters have professions and interests that allow the author to leaven the story with short lucid passages about astronomy, physics, piano-tuning, the wholesale produce business, opera and long-haul trucking. Meals are lovingly prepared and described so clearly, you can use a Hellenga novel as a cookbook.
In many ways, The Confessions of Frances Godwin both sums up and surpasses Hellenga’s body of work. This is a story of maturity by maturity for maturity, written with subtlety, deep learning, and wisdom. Even teenagers might find engrossing. I loved it.