August 22, 2014

Robert Hellenga’s ‘The Confessions of Frances Godwin’ outshines his previous works

“The Confessions of Frances Godwin,” by Robert Hellenga, gently boils down to the moment that one may use a weapon to protect a loved one.

In many ways, “The Confessions of Frances Godwin” sums up and surpasses Robert Hellenga’s previous body of work. This is a story of maturity by maturity for maturity, written with subtlety, deep learning and wisdom.

As in his earlier novels, the main characters are academics past middle age with a lifetime of experience, accomplishments and regrets. Frances Godwin is a Latin teacher. Her husband, Paul, is a Shakespeare scholar at a small Midwestern college. Their love, nearly four decades old, is full of daily pleasures as the couple sail toward retirement.

The first confession Frances makes to the reader is that this solid, satisfying relationship began as an adulterous student-professor affair, an unpardonable betrayal of Paul’s first wife, a nice woman who’d always been kind to Frances.

The Godwins’ marriage is ending now. Paul is dying of lung cancer.

He is no stoic as his world contracts to the length of his oxygen hose, and Frances makes another confession: She sometimes stays late at work to escape Paul’s crabby decline.

The couple’s last months together are further blighted by enduring worry about their daughter, Stella, a failed poet who has taken up with a wholly unsuitable man. Frances understands Jimmy’s bad-boy allure. He projects “an air of menace, cocksureness. Beating you back with his eyes and his tattoos, like a sports car idling, waiting for the light to change.”

Like many battered women, Stella sticks with this hostile ex-con out of loyalty, love and fear. The Godwins ache for her, as do many aging couples who must watch passively while grown children make catastrophic decisions. But what can you do, beyond hope for the best and keep lines of communication open?

Then Jimmy gets out of jail again and begins demanding money from the Godwins, threatening to take it out on Stella if they don’t comply. At Paul’s insistence, Frances changes the locks, gets a guard dog, installs a security system and buys a gun to keep by the bed.

Paul dies, and Frances is adjusting to widowhood when she gets the phone call she has always dreaded: Stella is in a hospital. Jimmy has pushed her out of a moving vehicle at 40 miles an hour on an interstate highway exit ramp.

Frances knows where to find Jimmy, and she has that gun. With cool deliberation, she tracks him down and looks this proven, unrepentant menace in the eye with her finger on the trigger of a .38-caliber pistol.

The sudden, irreversible finality of death is one of Hellenga’s themes, but in his earlier novels, violence came as a blow from beyond: a terrorist attack, a car wreck. This time he follows his character into her own cold and murderous anger.

I found the result gripping and unpredictable. Like Frances, I am a little old gray-haired lady, well-educated and well-traveled, with a calm, cerebral life. Like Frances, I grew up with guns. Like her, I am aware of my capacity for Homeric rage when somebody hurts someone I love. But could I pull that trigger? I don’t know.

Neither does Frances until the moment comes. Then she lives with her decision. More confessions follow: to her lawyer, to her priest, to God and to those who read this fine novel.

Mary Doria Russell has written five novels, including “The Sparrow,” which is due out next spring.

The Confessions of Frances Godwin, by Robert Hellenga (303 pages; Bloomsbury; $26)

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