Gail Godwin has been writing novels for 50 years. Her latest proves she has no intention of coasting

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – One is tempted to speak in hushed, valedictory tones when talking about Gail Godwin. After all, she has now been publishing novels for half a century. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop one of her teachers was Kurt Vonnegut. She’s been a finalist for a National Book Award three times. By this point, surely, she should have reached the Honorary Louis Auchincloss Anteroom where each new finely made, if predictable novel is received with gratitude but not serious critique.

But the trouble with Godwin is that she won’t coast. At 82, she’s still challenging herself and us. Her latest book, Old Lovegood Girls, is a richly layered novel based on a lifetime of reflection on friendship and storytelling. In a culture obsessed with youth, it’s a welcome reminder that age and wisdom can confer certain advantages, too.

Like most of Godwin’s work, this is a novel about the lives of women, but Godwin writes women’s fiction that deconstructs the condescending presumptions of that label. Her new book is a brilliant example of the way she can don even the most ladylike concerns while working through issues of independence, power and artistic integrity.

The story begins in 1958 at the Lovegood College for women, one of those prim academies corseted by tradition and good manners. Godwin knows this setting well and has fictionalized it before. In the late 1950s, she attended Peace College for women in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in 1984, she published a terrific short story in the Iowa Review also called Old Lovegood Girls.

As the novel opens, the dorm mistress, who “displayed the ramrod posture of a woman born in the last century,” and the dean are discussing the proper placement of incoming students. The dean can remember an earlier era when girls were “allowed to bring one horse. Just one.” Those were the days! “Let’s hope and plan that we can accommodate the spirit of change without forfeiting Lovegood’s values,” she said.

This campus, with its overlay of Southern evasiveness, is tempting grounds for satire, but Godwin has something more complex in mind. She’s created these genteel administrators in such fullness that they exemplify Lovegood’s noble values even as they take pleasure in their own slightly parodic performance. They are, like several academics I’ve adored over the years, delightfully sincere caricatures of themselves.

But the dean and the dorm mistress are not the focus of Old Lovegood Girls; they are the story’s prime movers, the good witches in a tale of fate, ambition and love. Hoping to engineer a mutually beneficial match in the dorm, they decide that a troubled new student named Feron Hood might benefit from the “positive, steadying influence” of Meredith Jellicoe. The conditions for amity, enmity or mere indifference are set. It’s up to the two students to make of their brief time together what they will.

Old Lovegood Girls is the story of that relationship: a friendship fused in the intensity of college and then refined and tested afterward for decades. Along the way, Godwin explores two very different lives, our country’s changing roles for women and the ways we use the people we admire.

Meredith seems, at first, a mere foil to her mysterious roommate. The happy daughter of successful farmers, Meredith is bright and outgoing; she considers reading in bed after lights out a “crime.” The worst thing that’s ever happened to her is the death of her dog. Feron, on the other hand, comes trailing clouds of horror: a runaway with a murdered mother and an abusive stepfather! But life has a way of violently readjusting the scales of tragedy.

The novel’s most interesting manoeuvre is the way it explores the persistence of competition between old friends. While still in school together, Feron is surprised by how she reacts to her roommate’s talent as a writer. “Jealousy woke up in me like a sleeping animal,” she confesses with a cringe, but then goes on to think: “I can do this. I can do it better.” In that moment, Feron’s career as a novelist begins, but she remains something of an artistic vampire – rewriting classic fairy tales and drawing on details from Meredith’s life. The two friends will spend years dancing around the issue of who has the right to tell whose story.

As the novel progresses, its scope broadens. Feron moves to New York and develops a strikingly independent life, while Meredith stays anchored to her family’s farm in North Carolina. Structured around Feron and Meredith’s infrequent letters and meetings, the story travels nimbly through an enormous swath of American history while remaining grounded in the particular experiences of these women who would seem to have nothing in common. But Godwin writes in a voice elastic enough to capture each woman’s mind and to trace the affections stretched between them “like gold to airy thinness beat.” The result is an extraordinary novel about the nature of those rare friendships that fade for long periods of time only to rekindle in an instant when the conditions are right again.

In her 50s, Feron surveys the publishing industry with a critical eye: “She kept abreast of the bright new retro novels,” the narrator says, “but found most of them over-researched and lacking the ‘feel’ of the decades she had lived through.”

It takes a supremely confident writer to raise that objection in her own bright new retro novel. But then Godwin goes a step further and dares to ask, “How many novels out in the world really and truly testified to their need to exist?”

Few, frankly. But this one makes a good case for itself.