Review: The Finishing School by Gail Godwin

Finishing School “Justin Stokes would never forget the summer she turned fourteen, nor the woman who transformed her bleak adolescent life into a wondrous place of brilliant color. In the little pondside hut also known as the “finishing school,” eccentric, free-spirited Ursula DeVane opened up a world full of magical possibilities for Justin, teaching her valuable lessons of love and loyalty, and encouraging her to change, to learn, to grow. But the lessons of the finishing school have their dark side as well, as Justin learns how deep friendship can be shattered by shocking, unforgivable betrayal.” – Goodreads

Oh, The Finishing School by Gail Godwin. What can I say, friends? I just really didn’t like this book much at all. It was long, and slow, and boring, and I had a huge sense of deja vu as I read it. Soon I realized many of the basic facts were the same as in Flora, another novel by Gail Godwin! No wonder I kept thinking I’d read this book before. Now, technically, The Finishing School was written before Flora was, so I should be slamming Flora, but since that ship has sailed we will focus on this little piece of work. Actually, why don’t we do a little side-by-side comparison first:

Justin (The Finishing School)

  • Dead parent (father)
  • Somewhat distant mother
  • Raised chiefly by grandparents
  • Grandparents recently died
  • Grandmother named Honora
  • Introduced to older woman who has major influence in her life (Ursula DeVane)

Helen (Flora)

  • Dead parent (mother)
  • Distant father
  • Raised chiefly by grandmother
  • Grandmother recently died
  • Grandmother named Honora
  • Introduced to older woman who has major influence in her life (Flora)

Um, Gail? Could we maybe mix things up a little bit more? I guess that’s where most of the similarities end… Here’s a synopsis of Justin’s story in The Finishing School:

After the death of Justin’s grandparents and father, she, her mother, and her little brother move North to live with her aunt and cousin. She has no friends so she rides her bike around a lot. One day, while out exploring, Justin meets an older woman named Ursula DeVane. Justin is instantly captivated by Ursula and looks upon her as a mentor and somewhat of an idol. Over the summer, they meet a few times. Once or twice they meet in a little hut near a pond, and talk about life and Ursula refers to this as their “Finishing School”, hence the title of the book. This was such a small part of the entire story that I was very surprised that the book was titled after it. I’d expected it to play a much bigger role. Anyway, Justin also has tea with Ursula and her brother and goes on a couple of day trips with Ursula. In between all of these visits between Ursula and Justin, there is much boring, unnecessary minutiae. Although, Justin does make one other friend, who is extremely overweight, and whose main characteristic is that she eats a lot. How nice. And original. So, one day near the end of summer, Justin decides to surprise Ursula by dropping by to tell her how wonderful she is. When Justin gets to Ursula’s house, however, she’s not there. Wherever could she be? Justin decides to check out the hut/pond area. There, she spies Ursula committing an “shocking, unforgivable betrayal”. Yes… let’s talk about that for a minute…

** SPOILER ALERT **

Let’s hear that again: Ursula has committed an “shocking, unforgivable betrayal” against Justin. Um… Really? Really?! Justin walks in on Ursula making out with her married neighbor, Abel, the father of two of Justin’s classmates. Apparently they’ve been in love since childhood, but one was always busy when the other was free, so they never hooked up. So, anyway, Abel and Ursula are now hooking it up in the hut and here comes Justin. She freaks out and jumps in the pond, and then has to “recover” from the shocking, unforgivable betrayal for days at home, in a darkened room. She refuses to forgive Ursula for this shocking, unforgivable betrayal. This shocking, unforgivable betrayal haunts Justin for the rest of her life. OK, what did Ursula do to Justin, exactly? How about… NOTHING! I suppose maybe a normal person might have been disappointed in Ursula’s morals regarding the situation, but at no point did she shockingly, unforgivably betray Justin herself. Get a grip, Justin. This was the climax of the book? Really?

** END SPOILER ALERT **

I’m so sorry, you guys. I know, I know – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But I just couldn’t hold back. Someone had to say it! Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book to you. Feel free to check out my past reviews or my Goodreads Read List and To-Be-Read List for book suggestions.

2 Stars, Sister

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia Digital Library

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