Monday, April 6, 2015

Frances Godwin, Another Tough Woman

I've returned from beautiful Costa Rica and a wonderful visit with a friend who's one strong woman. She and I share of love for the author Robert Hellenga ( who initially grabbed us with "The Sixteen Pleasures," so I had dragged along his latest book for her to read while I was there. As you can imagine, as much as we all love books, we didn't get much reading accomplished. On the flight home, however, I jumped in and finished "The Confessions of Frances Godwin" in two days.
Frances spoke to me for a number of reasons, she's a Latin teacher as was my mom, she's a young widow like my sister-in-law, she's prone to examining her life in minute detail like my dear friend Andrea, and she's in love with Italy as I am. Perhaps she is Hellenga's alter-ego or maybe she's channeling his mom. Either way I loved her for her humanity, her truth, and her passion for all that life throws at her.
Frances begins her story in 2006 having survived hernia repair surgery and been advised by her friend/arch-enemy Lois that she should think about getting her affairs in order. Yes, she's about my age. Her confessions take her back to 1963 in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome where, now graduated from college, she is taking a conversational Latin course with the renowned Father Adrian. Back in the states she's left a lover, her Shakespeare professor Paul Godwin, whose marriage is now on the skids because of their torrid affair.
Forty-some years later Paul and Frances are still together in Galesburg, Illinois. Their only child, Stella, has failed to live up to their high expectations, having eschewed study at the Iowa Writers' School, to take up with a thug named Jimmy who treks vegetables cross country in an eighteen wheeler.
Paul has lung cancer. In less than a year Frances must face the world as a solo traveler. What she decides to do and how she does it fills this small novel with big ideas. We learn about astronomy, antique automobiles, opera, piano tuning, great wines, and even the Catholic church.
Some critics might say that Hellenga throws in everything but the kitchen sink to show off the breadth of his knowledge. I say that he takes a love story, a murder mystery, and a fantasy, combined with a dose of magical realism, wraps it up in the food and music of Italy, and serves up the kind of satisfying novel that will stay with you days after you've closed the cover.

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