By Gail Godwin

(Bloomsbury, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Gail Godwin is by any measure a highly successful novelist, acclaimed by critics and appreciated by readers. She is has been a National Book Award finalist  three times and is  the bestselling author of a dozen novels, including “A Mother and Two Daughters,” “The Good Husband,” “Father Melancholy’s Daughter” and “Evensong.” Her nonfiction includes “The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961—1963” and Godwin has written libretti for 10 musical works with composer Robert Starer. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

What is this book about?

It’s the waning days of World War II, and in Oak Ridge, Tenn., 10-year-old Helen’s father is doing secret research. But who will care for Helen in North Carolina, whose mother died when she was three and whose beloved grandmother has just passed away? Enter Helen’s mother’s first cousin, 22-year-old Flora, who comes to the family’s decaying mountaintop home to take charge of the little girl, but seems significantly under-qualified for the job. Flora is determined, but weepy, and it often seems that Helen is far more mature and capable of taking care of her caretaker. This novel is a brilliant examination of their relationship and how it affects Helen and Flora long after that summer is over.

Why you’ll like it:

Godwin is adept at layered stories with layered characters who are peeled back to their essence with the precise delicacy of a skilled surgeon. Here she gives us a difficult, bossy and very precocious child who is frightened by the deaths in her family and, despite her intelligence, does not understand how her behavior may hurt the child-like woman who has come to take care of her. Some have compared the tone of this book to Henry James’ classic “The Turn of the Screw,” high praise indeed.

What others are saying:

Says author John Irving:    “Helen’s story, which she tells us when she is an older woman, is focused on the summer when she was a precocious ten-year-old.  Her mother is dead, and the “haunted little girl” has more recently lost her grandmother.  Flora (the first cousin of Helen’s late mother) is looking after Helen for the summer.  Helen seems much smarter and more sophisticated than her unwanted, twenty-two-year-old companion from Alabama; Helen believes that Flora is the one who needs looking after. “ ‘Remorse is wired straight to the heart,’ the older Helen tells us.  Gail Godwin’s Flora is similarly wired — straight to the heart.  The events of Helen’s haunted and most formative summer are perfectly plotted to unhinge her; what happens to Helen and Flora will make Helen the woman (and the writer) she becomes. …Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth — one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives. This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book.”

In The Washington Post, Ron Charles says: “…witty and moving…The incidents of this plot are daringly few: A boring summer during which nothing happens is a challenge most novelists should avoid. Godwin, though, has the psychological sensitivity to make these still, humid days seem fraught with impending consequence…The success of this trim novel rests entirely on Godwin’s ability to maintain the various chords of Helen’s voice, which are by degrees witty, superior, naive and rueful…Her recollection of that tragic summer, turned over and over in her mind for years, is something between a search for understanding and a mournful confession. But finally it’s a testament to the power of storytelling to bring solace when none other is possible.”

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Narrator Helen Anstruther, “going on eleven,” is the relentlessly charismatic and wry star of this stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin (Unfinished Desires). In the summer of 1945, in the mountains of North Carolina, Helen is trying to make sense of the world since her beloved grandmother’s death. When her father leaves to do “secret work for World War II” in neighboring Tennessee, this becomes much more challenging, and Helen, motherless for years, is left in the care of 22-year-old Flora, a delicate and, Helen might say, hopelessly effusive relative. Helen has grown up in a rambling old house that once served as a home for convalescent tubercular or inebriate “Recoverers” under the care of Helen’s physician grandfather. For a precocious girl who has lost everyone who’s ever loved and known her, the house becomes a mesmerizing and steadfast companion. Though Flora initially appears to Helen as little more than a country bumpkin, their time together profoundly transforms them both. Godwin’s thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies.”

“Godwin, celebrated for her literary finesse, presents a classic southern tale galvanic with decorous yet stabbing sarcasm and jolting tragedy…. Godwin’s under-your-skin characters are perfectly realized, and the held-breath plot is consummately choreographed. But the wonder of this incisive novel of the endless repercussions of loss and remorse at the dawn of the atomic age is how subtly Godwin laces it with exquisite insights into secret family traumas, unspoken sexuality, class and racial divides, and the fallout of war while unveiling the incubating mind of a future writer, “says Booklist in a starred review.

When is it available?

You can borrow “Flora” from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Camp Field, Dwight or Park branches.

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