Until March 16, 2020, I associated coffee with books. I got in the habit of drinking coffee while reading when I forgot how to sleep in grad school. The caffeine may not have helped me sleep, but I wasn’t sleeping anyway. And, natch, I haven’t had a decent cup of coffee since informal lockdown (which, of course, the governor wants to lift now that record numbers of people are sick and dying) .
It is not as easy as you might think to get good coffee these days. The poor girl at the coffeehouse is enclosed in a giant flexiglass cube. In fact, I couldn’t find the gap until she gestured me over to a narrow space above the cash register.
I needed this coffee to write about books, though. So this is a catch-up post.
In her brilliant new novel, Old Lovegood Girls, Godwin tells the engrossing story of two women writers who become friends at Lovegood College, an elite Southern women’s college. The book begins at a slight distance from the two main characters–crucial for the introduction of two heroines who experiment with different forms of literary fiction and New Journalism. The dean and the dorm mistress converse about the problem of a suitable roommate for Feron Hood, a student accepted at the last minute. Her uncle, a lawyer, is the grandson of one of the first Lovegood alumnae, and he says Feron needs a safe environment: she has run away from an abusive stepfather, lived on the streets of Chicago, and then taken a bus to North Carolina, where she showed up in his office unannounced.
Who would feel at home with Feron? Finally they decide that charming Meredith Grace Jellicoe, a rich tobacco farmer’s daughter, would be a good match. And this pairing is in a way like writing a story: the dean and dorm mistress set them on a lifelong course of friendship and storytelling.
Class matters: you can’t pair a girl from a working-class family shaped by a mother’s alcoholism and stepfather’s violence with a privileged young woman like Merry Grace unless you expect complications. On the surface, everything is fine. Feron likes Merry Grace, but is envious of her background. Merry Grace is not only from a happy family but is lovely with her honey-gold hair and unselfconsiousness. Feron thinks enviously: “Everything was contained in her. As though God, when making her, took great pains to color all of her inside the lines.”
Their mutual love of Chekhov, and Godwin’s own analysis of his graceful style, help us understand the shaping of the Feron’s and Merry Grace’s writing careers. For a creative writing assignment in English class, Merry Grace uses Chekhov’s “Typhus,” the story of a young Russian soldier who becomes ill and infects his sister, as the template of a story she writes about a girl who comes down with influenza in 1918. After reading this, Feron hones her own autographical short story about a middle-aged woman who pours out her problems to a girl on the bus. But Feron doesn’t begin to write seriously until years later in New York when she sees a short story by Merry Grace in The Atlantic Monthly.
Godwin’s characterization of their contrasting personalities gives us insight into the anger and haughtiness of Feron, who prefers house-sitting in New York City to renting an apartment, and writes novels that are retellings of very dark fairy tales. Sometimes I thought, “Feron, do you have to be so weird?” Merry Grace, who is the much better friend, turned out to be the unlucky one in a way: her parents died in the middle of her freshman year, and Merry Grace had to leave school and take over the tobacco business. Merry Grace is truly supportive of reserved Feron, who is seldom, if ever, there for her, but even Merry Grace is exasperated at one point. But their correspondence helps them work out their approaches to writing. And Merry Grace’s involvement with a black church while she is researching a freed slave’s invention of a tobacco process is life-changing. Though Godwin never comes out and says this, it is the African-American women in this Bible study group who are Merry Grace’s true friends.
In case you’re wondering, Old Lovegood Girls is nothing like Mary McCarthy’s The Group–but brilliant in a different way. Godwin is fascinated by the process of writing, and shows us how it’s done.