In Sarah Domet’s debut novel The Guineveres*, four girls, all named Guinevere, find each other at a convent run by the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Abandoned by their families for various reasons, the four Guineveres (Gwen, Win, Ginny, and Vere), united by their unusual name, find strength in numbers. When a group of comatose soldiers arrives at the convent for care, the girls plot their escape into their adult lives, with unexpected consequences.
Here are five reasons to read it for yourself:
- It’s a bildungsroman about girls: Spare me your Holden Caulfields; give me the complex inner lives of girls, and especially girls in groups, any day.
- The convent isn’t Lowood, and the nuns aren’t evil: I was dreading a clichéd take on the Catholic convent school, but my fears were unfounded. Life with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration is austere, often dull, and strictly bounded, but the nuns care about their charges, and do what they think is best to keep them safe and promote their spiritual development. In fact, I thought the nuns were interesting enough to deserve their own book.
- The narrative is pleasingly polyphonic: The book proceeds chronologically, with most sections keyed to events on the liturgical calendar, like feast days and holidays. Though Vere is the book’s narrator, she often slips into the first-person plural, so that the Guineveres speak together. Interspersed with the story of their fateful year are Vere’s retellings of the lives of female saints, and each girl’s account of how she came to live with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration.
- Vere is a winning narrator: The shyest of the Guineveres, Vere is a careful observer of her companions’ habits and inclinations, the faithful chronicler of their lives together and human nature (“The heart is funny in that way: When it keeps on loving, and loving, and loving what isn’t there, it becomes attached to the notion that love is the wait itself, the emptiness of it.”). Personality-wise, think Elinor Dashwood meets Jo March; she also reminded me, a little, of the narrators of Rush Oh! and My Name is Lucy Barton.
- The writing is quite good: While I have two critiques (First, “Mass” is not capitalized as it ought to be, and second, I found the refusal to name the time period aggravating—my search for clues kept throwing me out of the world, though I think the intended effect was to render the book timeless), on the whole I found Ms. Domet’s writing smooth and often lovely. Certain images linger, like the nuns’ worn-out shoes repurposed as planters, and the idea that Ginny’s “sensitivity was like an open wound that occasionally scabbed over but never healed completely.”
What are you reading this week?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.