Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)
To four girls who have nothing, their friendship is everything: they are each other’s confidants, teachers, and family. The girls are all named Guinevere―Vere, Gwen, Ginny, and Win―and it is the surprise of finding another Guinevere in their midst that first brings them together. They come to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent by different paths, delivered by their families, each with her own complicated, heartbreaking story that she safeguards. Gwen is all Hollywood glamour and swagger; Ginny is a budding artiste with a sentiment to match; Win’s tough bravado isn’t even skin deep; and Vere is the only one who seems to be a believer, trying to hold onto her faith that her mother will one day return for her. However, the girls are more than the sum of their parts and together they form the all powerful and confident The Guineveres, bound by the extraordinary coincidence of their names and girded against the indignities of their plain, sequestered lives.
The nuns who raise them teach the Guineveres that faith is about waiting: waiting for the mail, for weekly wash day, for a miracle, or for the day they turn eighteen and are allowed to leave the convent. But the Guineveres grow tired of waiting. And so when four comatose soldiers from the War looming outside arrive at the convent, the girls realize that these men may hold their ticket out.
In prose shot through with beauty, Sarah Domet weaves together the Guineveres’ past, present, and future, as well as the stories of the female saints they were raised on, to capture the wonder and tumult of girlhood and the magical thinking of young women as they cross over to adulthood.
I wanted to love this book, but unfortunately I found it just all right. The book opens with the Guineveres’ first attempt to escape from the convent by hiding in the interior of a parade float. I wish they had been successful in doing so. Their time in the convent was uninteresting to me.
My favorite aspects of the story were those that took place outside of the scope of the primary plot. Domet takes several departures from the plot to recount the stories of females saints. These were fascinating and grungy – a legendary tale told in a bitingly realistic voice. Domet has four additional chapters that operate outside of the timeline of the novel – their “revival stories” – a flashback for each Guinevere to explain how each she ended up in this place. None of the stories are happy but all of them are impossible to put down once you’ve begun that particular chapter.
Compared to the juicy tellings of these women’s stories, their time in the convent moves by incredibly slowly. Things do not get interesting until the last few chapters, which I tore through, both to figure out what had happened and to be able to finish the book and move on. To be completely honest, I am not a religious person. Religion, catholicism in particular, plays a crucial role in the novel. It is extremely possible that someone with a background in catholicism may identify with this novel more than I did. I instead looked to the characters for this sense belonging and did not find it there. The characters in the convent seemed to be caricatures – broad strokes of people. In each girl’s “revival story,” you found her true self. But this self hardly carried into the world of the convent, and those who were not named Guinevere had no chance at such detail.
The prose of the “revival stories” and the stories of the saints was more than enough to prove to me that Domet is a skilled writer. I will certainly keep her on my list of novelists to watch.
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