On “The Guineveres” by Sarah Domet

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I don’t want to mince words when it comes to this book; The Guineveres was beautifully written. Sarah Domet possesses the envious ability to produce pristine and controlled prose that—at many points in this story—turn the mundane beautiful.

It was the story itself that left me feeling lukewarm throughout the book. That’s not to say it was bad. In fact, it was sturdy and competent; Domet’s writing served it well. But it did nothing to grasp my attention in the ways I thought it might.

I decided to read The Guineveres because one reviewer compared it to Jeffrey EugenidesThe Virgin Suicidesone of my favorite books. Here’s an important lesson: Don’t put faith in those comparisons. I would say the only similarities between the latter and Domet’s novel is the fact that four girls stand at the center of each their narratives; and that various religious elements are present in both. As a coming-of-age story, though, The Guineveres is decidedly better than most.

Domet does an excellent job of developing each girl’s personality. Vere, the novel’s narrator, Win, Ginny, and Gwen complement each other and influence the group’s actions in distinct ways. As the novel reaches its climax, the reader understands almost instinctively how things will start to fall apart once the girls start going their separate ways.

However, there were a few elements of the story that prevented me from connecting with it the way the author probably intended. The four comatose soldiers become an integral part of the plot—a way for the Guineveres to escape the convent. This plot convention rests on the naivete of these 15-year-old girls, something that I grew impatient with. The girls believe the soldiers will wake up, and then they will be allowed to go home with them.

Their hope and faith (of course, the main theme since they’re in a convent) is equal parts touching and repellent. It’s upsetting that they see this as their only way out, but I couldn’t help but think that if they could just wait until they turned eighteen, the world would be their oyster. It’s also fairly obvious what’s going to happen later in the story when Vere and Gwen realize that one of the boys can still be sexually aroused.

Which leads to a clumsy ending. I was surprised when Vere decides to stay at the convent and raise Gwen’s baby, but it is disappointing nonetheless. Of all the Guineveres, Vere and Win were the ones I wanted to make a successful life for themselves the most, outside the convent. Vere isn’t unhappy. She seems satisfied with her decision, and she knows young Guinevere will leave and discover the world. But it still seems Vere got trapped in the convent, forever in love with a comatose soldier.

Though I appreciated Vere as the story’s narrator, I think it could have been interesting to tell the story from each girl’s perspective. It could have given the story some extra dimension when things start to unravel. Of course, the reader does get four chapters interspersed throughout the book, which explains how each girl ended up at the convent—each story as heartbreaking as the other. I can’t help but think if all the Guineveres had a hand in telling the story, I might not have hated Gwen and Ginny as much as I did. But here we are.

When it comes down to it, the detail with which Domet renders life in the convent redeemed many of the story’s pitfalls for me. In fact, I got a few flashbacks while reading; I thought I would go my entire life without seeing detentions called JUGs again, which is a Christian school’s form of after school detention. It made me laugh out loud! Everything from the daily catechism lessons to the uniforms to the short descriptions of the lives of certain saints throughout the book made me keep reading, and in the end, they made it worthwhile.

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