What to Read After Ferrante: Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters

Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin

Women love Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, her hugely enjoyable pop-literary novels about a tumultuous friendship lasting from childhood through old age.

Many reviewers have asked, “What do I read after I’ve finished Ferrante?”

I have the answer.  If you like Ferrante…

Try Gail Godwin, a Southern writer who has been a finalist for the National Book Award for The Odd Woman (1975), Violet Clay (1980) and A Mother and Two Daughters (1983).  She is the author of 14 novels, two short story collections, three non-fiction books, and ten libretti.  Godwin is  both literary and popular:  she  knows how to tell a gripping story, and how to dig deep for psychological truths.  She worked as a journalist, earned a master’s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and taught at various universities.  Her beautifully-written  novels explore the difficult relationships between women and their families.  Her characters are well-read and sometimes intellectual: I look forward to their discussions about Nathanael Hawthorne, George Gissing, George Eliot, and Montaigne.

gail godwin a mother and two daughters 51xHfXMjvbL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My favorite of her novels is A Mother and Two Daughters, the  story of three women  entangled by family ties and daily conflicts that make it hard to see one another clearly.  It is told  from alternating points of view and  in distinctive voices:  Nell Strickland, a happily married woman who lives with her husband, Leonard, a lawyer, in a house with a view of  the mountains  in North Carolina; Cate, her wildly rebellious daughter, is an English professor at a college in Iowa, who has been married twice and is ending an affair with the Resident Poet; and Lydia is the dullest, a 36-year-old housewife and mother of two who leaves her husband for two reasons:  (a) to take a lover and (b) to go back to school.

Nell is in the middle.  She can see the strengths of wild Cate, who doesn’t care what others think, and of traditional Lydia.  Seeing them at the same time can, however, be trying.

The three come back together after Leonard Strickland, their calm, intellectual, Montaigne-reading husband and father, dies of a heart attack while driving home from a party:  Nell has a broken rib.

After Lydia picks up Cate at the airport, they drop by the house.  They sit in the living room in the house where they grew up.  The description of the room tells so much about all three of the women.

The early-winter sunset was filling the room with shadows. So much family history had happened here.  Cate had petitioned to be allowed to drop out of convent school and go to public high school.  In this room, Lydia, hardly able to contain her triumph, had made hasty wedding plans so she could accompany Max to his new job in London.  every six months, Nell Strickland would declare the room off-limits the night before it was her turn to hostess the Book or Bridge Club.  In the southwest corner, next to the huge Magnavox console, their father would sit on Saturday afternoons, upright and motionless as a Pharaoh…as he gave himself up to his operas via earphones.

mother and two hardback gail godwin516P2u0ym5L._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_Life doesn’t stand still after the funeral.  Back at school, Cate is asked to take over a theater class after the drama teacher had “suddenly” to leave, i.e., was fired because he had made a gay pass at a student.  And so Cate meets Roger Jernigan, the father of one of her students,  known as the Pesticide King, who lives in a castle on the bluffs. Amazingly, they click.  They enjoy  their talk and are attracted.  He visits her flat in a condemned building, and she visits his castle on the bluffs.  Inevitably, Cate gets pregnant. She knows she cannot keep the child.  Ironically , her godmother, has just taken in a pregnant girl, obviously to take Cate’s place.

Godwin speaks about A Mother and Two Daughters  in an interview at nationalbook.org

The nearest I can get to the theme is expressed by “Cate”, when her mother is about to host a meeting of the Book Club on The Scarlet Letter. She says that the main thing to remember about that book is that it asks a very crucial question: Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live? Paradoxically, the more completely you develop your own character, the more useful you are to society. But you can’t just be a free spirit; you have to give and blend and become part of a whole that’s larger than yourself

Really a stunning book!  Treat yourself.