Saturday, September 05, 2020

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin spans four decades of female friendship

Beautifully evoking a longtime friendship’s transformative power, Godwin traces two women’s intellectual development and life decisions, and how they intertwine, across four decades.

In 1958, Meredith Grace (“Merry”) Jellicoe and Feron Hood are matched as roommates at Lovegood College, a two-year school for women in North Carolina. The daughter of tobacco farmers, Merry has a welcoming personality, and the college dean, Susan Fox, believes she’ll be a comforting influence on the guarded Feron, who had a troubled home life. She’s right. The two become close; both are talented writers, sharing deep conversations on literary approaches and reading each other’s stories. Envious of Merry’s writing fluency, Feron feels she can do even better and uses this emotion to push herself forward.

Old Lovegood Girls focuses on connections rather than competition, though, and in this and other aspects, it gracefully subverts the tropes that pervade fiction about women. Likewise, Lovegood College, one of those old-fashioned, rigid-seeming institutions with longstanding rituals and values, breaks away from stereotype. Dean Fox, for example, is a wonderful character, an open, nurturing administrator with a full inner life. After the girls’ first semester, tragedy forces Merry to return home and take up family responsibilities. She and Feron correspond sporadically and rarely meet, but their friendship is of the type where they know each other’s qualities so well (they stay in each other’s “reference aura,” as Feron expresses it) that they rely on each other as guides through life.

With an unhurried pace that enables characters to develop and mature, the story delves with eloquent wisdom into a wide swath of issues: love, grief, family relationships, the value of storytelling, even (in a way that feels slyly meta) the challenges of writing historical novels. It’s a fine example of introspective fiction, and an ideal read for these uneasy times.

Old Lovegood Girls was published by Bloomsbury this year; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. I became interested in it after hearing the author interviewed by Jenna Blum at A Mighty Blaze on Facebook Live in May. The historical college setting was enticing, and the discussion about the novel's themes piqued my attention. I also love the cover.


  1. Thank you for reminding of this novel. I'd been planning to read it -- I've so appreciated and enjoyed all of Godwin's previous novels.

  2. I haven't read her work before this! Lots to look forward to in the future.

    Thanks for commenting - hope you've been doing well.

  3. By the way -- I'm sure you're read Farrante's Neapolitan novels ; in some ways, I feel that Godwin has been dealing with many of the same issues from the perspective of stand alone novels of USian women, over the many decades she's been reliably publishing high quality work.

  4. I've read the first two, and see where you're coming from in how the two authors depict women's friendships.

    There's a new Ferrante just out, too. I ordered a copy for the library last week.

    1. Sue Miller has a new novel as well -- she too a writer who has been producing reliably high quality work throughout her now long career. Hooboy, I remember when she debuted with The Good Mother in 1986, and being so pleasantly surprised by how satisfying a reading experience this was. She was a favorite short story writer too, in the NYer. Though not classifiable as an historical writer, of course, though her new one, Monogamy, tracing a long marriage, is kinda historical in a contemporary sense!

      I've been posting around once a week on Fox Home in These Times. We're doing a lot better than millions and millions and millions, through even our relative privilege. I kept checking here to see if you were posting even though I had little to no heart to comment -- just wanted to check that you were active, so to speak -- and always glad that seemed so!

    2. I read one of hers a long time ago - The World Below, I believe. The storyline seems familiar. It gets bad when I have trouble recalling what I've read, but that means I can likely enjoy reading it again and being surprised by what happens.

      Pretty much the same situation here. 2020 hasn't been a good year for many reasons, but we're doing OK, all things considered. Reading is one thing I'm managing to keep up with, though I know that's not the case with everyone, since it's not always easy to concentrate in These Times.

    3. Reading medieval history has been my consolation already during the previous Presidental campaign and after. And particularly now. I couldn't read anything else. I couldn't focus on fiction at all. But in June I discovered a downloadable series set in contemporary France, written by an American author, Martin Walker. They are a fairytale, really, but the perfect escape for me. I was able to get the final (so far) #18 title, this week, published back in May, as a hc print book via the recently executed Grab 'n Go NYPL program (it didn't begin until sometime in August).

      I am thrilled and happy to have it -- read 1/3 last night. But I'm also sad because I have been living in this fairy tale small village in the Dorghdon since June, and now I shall have to leave it. Sniff.

    4. That sounds like a lovely place to spend time. I've barely left the county since late February.

      Martin Walker's series is new to me. I'll have to check it out. I've been relying more on library copies, too, including ebooks via Overdrive.