Savannah author Sarah Domet’s debut novel “The Guineveres” shares similarities with Jeffrey Eugenides “The Virgin Suicides,” also about a coterie of virginal adolescent girls eager to bust out of their sequestered world. But the hokey premise – four teenage girls who bond over sharing the same name – is a bit more “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Despite that foundation, and a few contrived characterizations, Domet manages to weave a haunting and compelling story about relationships, desperation and survival.
Vere, Gwen, Ginny and Win (the faithful one, the seductress, the artist and the tough girl, respectively) were all abandoned at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent by their families over the course of two years. Their relatives “drove away for good, up the one-lane drive and into a world that was easier without children” for reasons we come to learn through their individual “Revival Stories,” morbid family tales of murder, sexual abuse, rejection and mental illness.
The girls are not allowed to leave the convent – which is, in Ginny’s words, “big as a castle and almost as pretty, except it was kind of scary because there were lots of windows, and the blinds were all closed like they were hiding something inside” – until they turn 18. However, it becomes their goal to leave sooner. They grow infatuated with what they imagine freedom in the outside world could bring them. Meanwhile, life inside the walls contains alcohol, cliquey gossip, unrequited love and even sex.
Their first bungled escape attempt occurs during a religious parade. For punishment, they’re assigned to work in the sick ward. It’s there that the unexpected arrival of five comatose and unidentified soldiers injured in “the War” starts a chain of life-altering events. When one of the soldiers wakes up, the illustrious Ebbie, who’d been assigned to take care of him, is permitted to leave with him and his family. Hence, the girls hatch a new get-away plan: Figure out the identities of “their Boys” or get them to wake up, and they’ll be able to leave early, too.
Looking for clues, they filch objects from the men’s duffel bags – a Psalm book, a wedding ring, a wooden toy and a rough object that turns out to be a human ear. But the Guineveres learn nothing about their unresponsive boys. Nevertheless, being sheltered girls who long for romantic experience, they fantasize about them constantly and create fantasy relationships in their heads. After they are relieved from sick ward duty, they sneak out of the bunk room through a secret passageway to see the boys in the middle of the night. As a rule, they always pay their visits as a group. But a Guinevere breaks that mandate one night, and in the process, betrays much more than just their pact.
The story is narrated by Vere, told nearly two decades after the events occurred. This affords the reader the benefit of hearing the story from a child’s point of view, but through the lens of maturity and wisdom. Domet succeeds in capturing the dreamy thoughts and passionate emotions of adolescent girls. Hiding in a parade float, the girls close their eyes in the hopes that “if we couldn’t see them, we’d be invisible.” And they pass the time by making a game of rain on the window, “picking which raindrop would beat the others, the winner feeling only mildly less apathetic after victory.”
The author does an impressive job developing a curious cast of characters, particularly evident in the description of body language to animate Vere’s gravely injured solider. There’s Father James, an alcoholic who joined the church to avoid being drafted. He adopts the girls as “altar boys,” an exception that could only be made as part of the war effort. The pasty, pressed-lipped Sister Fran runs the convent, acting as a strict mother figure, who offers platitudes like, “Can you imagine if the Ten Commandments were called the Ten Suggestions?” There’s also the Sister with the proud stutter and the resented Lottie, who actually receives letters from her parents.
But they all serve to assist the damaged, multi-headed character that is the Guineveres: the beautiful Gwen who “smiled with lips that she’d redden with raspberries”; creative Ginny who rubbed dried paint on her skin; and the macho Win who gets nose-to-nose with a girl she wishes to intimidate.
The least is known about the narrator; what we know is gleaned from her interactions with her best friends. Vere often refers to the group as though it were one person, saying things like “we tried to put this out of our minds” or “we felt stunned, as if someone had ripped off a leg and expected us to keep on walking.” But as time passes without any of the boys regaining consciousness, the foursome begins to fall apart. A failed solo attempt to escape and a nervous breakdown signal the beginning of the end for the Guineveres.
About the girls’ later lives, Vere says they had “been through marriages and children, death and divorce.” It is safe to assume she moved on as well. Throughout her reflections about the Guineveres’ lives in the nunnery, Vere interweaves tales about the virginal women saints the girls studied in class, including Saint Cecilia, who began to sing after she was beheaded for not renouncing her faith. Eerie parallels can be drawn between Vere’s life and those of the suffering saints. But, in a satisfying way, this connection only becomes apparent in the novel’s final pages.