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The Finishing School (Ballantine Reader's Circle)by Gail Godwin
Reading Group Guide
1. The Finishing School begins, “Last night I dreamed of Ursula DeVane,” which is reminiscent of the beginning of Daphne du Mauriers novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed of Manderley.” Is a dream a good starting point for a story? Imagine one of your own dreams. How would you develop it? How does Godwin proceed? (I count nine different tacks she takes in the first six pages before preparing herself for the mantra “Fourteen. Be fourteen again.”)
2. On page 3, the narrator admits, “I wont hire a detective to go in search of a real seventy-year old woman . . . But I will attend to what her image, playing its role in last nights dream, came to tell me.” real person—has its function.” Can you imagine any characters with whomJustin might have engaged but whom Godwin weeded out? Are there any characters she included whom she could have left out?
3. When Aunt Mona dives to pick up a piece of food that Jem, Justins brother, had dropped at dinner, Justin gives her mother a look to distinguish “Our Way of Life” from “Theirs.” You can gain insight into the way of life represented in a novels universe by asking yourself what the book or its characters have to say about a variety of key topics: religion, politics, the arts and literature, mass media, social class, race, gender, aging, the natural world, human nature, sex, current events, community, crime and punishment, etc.
4. Adolescents do not write many great novels, so we have to trust adults to create adolescent states of mind retrospectively. How accurately does Godwin do it? What aspects of adolescence would an Justins awareness of and involvement with sexuality, starting with the Cristiana poltroon farm.
5. When Justin receives her grandmothers pearl necklace, initiating her into womanhood, she muses, “There was a lonely, mysterious side of myself I was just beginning to know, a side neither masculine nor feminine but quivering with intimations of mental and spiritual things.” Does the focus on sex stunt other developmental needs in teenagers?
6. There are some good passages for studying the nature of Justins confusion. On page 79, you read that Justin goes up to the old farmhouse and paints an Ursula-like figure whom she then consults as an oracle. Upon returning home and being swallowed by circumstances there, her painted figure begins to look like one of the mindless milkmaids on her wallpaper—her newly forming self, she thinks. Can a person see his or her fate? How clearly does Justin do so?
7. Also, look at page 99. Justin senses the magic of her visit to the DeVanes draining from her as Aunt Mona defends her. How many people are fighting for Justins allegiance? Who is Justin if she is not any of the people others think she is? On page 105, Justin thinks she might be a monster manipulating others in order to get her mother to move back to Virginia. Could she be a monster? Where does her goodnesslie? This is a question that the grown-up Justin asks on page 106 as she looks back at her fourteen-year-old self.
8. Make a list of the music cited in the novel, get the recordings, and play them. How do they affect your experience of reading and remembering the novel, if at all?
9. Satire lovers, how much satire can you take? How much satire is there in The Finishing School? Does it serve its role well? Would you want more? If there were more, how would that change the novel? Can you think of a novel that has a lot more satire in it? What is that novel missing that The Finishing School has? Look at the first instance of satire in The Finishing School, on pages 23 through 35. (Also, see other satiric passages on pages 146, 200-201, 213-16, 265, and 269-70.) Notice how Godwin introduces Aunt Monas household—with a seemingly banal conversation that, nonetheless, introduces a lot of information and thematic notes.
10. We know that when Godwin introduces a subplot or anecdote, it has a double edge. For example, late in the book, Ursula makes Justin question the admirability of her grandfathers statement about his wife—“the only woman . . . who would behave exactly the same way if nobody were looking.” Note the subplots in the novel and puzzle over their double meaning. You can start with the story of how Justins mother had eloped (pages 32-33).
11. If you were to write a story in the manner of Gail Godwin, what would be the features you would include? In the preceding interview, Godwin says that one of her major motivations for writing is to understand what goes on in others minds. In what ways is empathy an active attribute of Godwins characters as well as of herself as narrator?
12. How do characters who are good at empathy fare and how do ones who are not? Look at Aunt Mona and the wallpaper and curtains she puts in Justins room as an act of empathy. Look at Justins mother and judge whether she is indeed to be condemned for not knowing her daughters mind. Look at Ursula and her uses of empathy. Rate characters on their levels of empathy. See if you agree with your fellow readers.
13. In representing characters states of mind, Godwin does not stick to linear narrative. How would you represent a characters mental activity? (Try tracking your own.) Find a passage in which Godwin uses flashbacks, reflections, wishes, and actions to dramatize a character. Do you find this exciting? Pleasing? If you take out everything but the drama, with what do you end up, greater or lesser suspense?
14. Justin moves from a Virginia town to an upstate New York one. Godwin lives in New York State, but grew up in the South. Is she a Southern writer? Does her writing have Southern qualities, or does she represent the South in her work? (See page 65.)
15. How would you interpret the dream about the magician and the grass-overgrown house on page 43?
16. Look at a passage of dialogue—pages 53 through 56, for instance. What are the dynamics? Godwin lets you examine how people jockey for position through their conversation, no matter how light it is. How do they do so in this passage? Justins mother tells the story about Justins experience at a riding stable. The owner advises Justin to let the horse know whos boss, and Justin replies, “Oh, he already knows, sir.” As with horses, so with people, no?
17. Somehow, youre going to have to deal with the character of Abel Cristiana. Try to remember as many things as you can about him. Is he a bully? (See page 205.) Why is Ursula attracted to him? What do you make of his World War II experiences (page 66)?
18. Godwin says that she keeps track of her characters so that no major character ends up sitting offstage too long. After a while, a character has to assert him- or herself. When and how does Justins mother assert herself? Does she assert herself enough? See Chapter IV, for instance.
19. Would you call The Finishing School a symbolic novel? For instance, there are the birthday presents Justin gets—the blue bottle (from Ursula) and her grandmothers pearl necklace (from her mother). These are intentionally symbolic items. What about dream symbolism? Finally, what about the symbolism of actual things, such as the demolished farmhouse and the murky pond? Dont be literary, be real. Does symbolism have an effect on peoples lives?
20. Whats the deal with Ursulas first lover, the European with the same family name? Does the DeVane family have a condition, inflicted by history? What does Justin mean, on page 198, when she says that dining with the DeVanes was like “being abducted into a community of ghosts”? How does this aspect of the story compare to Edgar Allan Poes “Fall of the House of Usher”?
21. Mr. Mott, as a character, comes to life late in the book. Did you dismiss him as an uninteresting character at first? Do you believe that any character—or person—can make an interesting subject for a story? What might be interesting about Joan Dibble?
22. Chapter VII is a good chapter to look at to see how Godwin uses foreshadowing (see pages 166 and 171). Grown-up Justin returns to the scene of the “crime” and gives hints about things to come. Why does Godwin leave the big revelation until the end—for just dramatic reasons? Is it so terrible that Justin cant admit it? What might be the parts that Justin cant bring herself to admit?
23. Have you ever known a brilliantly manipulative person? What techniques did he or she use? Does Ursula use those tricks? Can you be attracted to such a person and hold your own?
24. Writing experts say that the most important element in a story is voice, and that the most important element in voice is authority. Youve got to believe and trust your main speaker. But what if there is more than one main speaker? Do any voices compete with Justins for authority? What other voices made an impression on you in The Finishing School? Ursula takes over the first-person voice for a good portion of Chapters IX and X. How would it be if she had narrated the novel? Where do you think she ended up?
25. Do you agree with Ursulas need for perpetual youth and her motto, “As long as you yearn, you cant congeal”?
26. On page 245, Ursula confesses to Justin that her mother haunts her and she feels condemned to relive her mothers life. Is this a common condition, being haunted and falling into a fateful pattern? Can you see it in yourself? Does The Finishing School give us warnings about what may happen to us, or models on how people break away from such influences?
27. Does Godwin draw special significance from the double meaning of the word “finishing” in “the finishing school”?
28. Starting on page 289, when Justin considers how she might have responded differently than she did to Julians despairing talk, do you see any paths for her other than the one that the plot (fate?) requires?
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