Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, is a rich, emotional story of friendship, faith, and the struggle to find meaning when hopes for a normal life seem all but lost. Four teenage girls, each burdened with the name Guinevere, come to the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent under very different circumstances, but bond together over their shared, uncommon name. The girls, the sensitive artist Ginny, the tough protector Winn, the wannabe Hollywood starlet Gwen, and the narrator and timid believer Vere, become known collectively as “The Guineveres” at the convent and depend on each other for help and support as they live and grow together in this harsh, restrictive environment.
The Guineveres find life at the convent unbearable. The overbearing headmistress Sister Fran proselytizes constantly and warns the girls against the sins of the flesh, rather, the sin of simply having bodies that are subject to the laws of nature. The Guineveres are desperate for a normal life, for love and acceptance outside of their restricted circle of namesakes, a way out of the sheltered existence their parents have abandoned them to. They decide that they simply cannot wait until they turn eighteen to leave the convent. Their first attempt at escape is to hide inside a float they designed for the convent’s annual parade but the girls’ ill thought-out plan soon falls apart and the girls are found and dragged back to the convent. As penance, they are assigned to work in the convent’s convalescent ward as nurses, tending to the elderly and infirm patients. The girls, lamenting their failure, soon find a new and unexpected opportunity. War erupts in the outside world and five young, comatose soldiers are brought to the convalescent ward for care. One of the soldiers wakes up and the older girl who had been tending to him is sent home with him to act as his nurse, instantly becoming an indispensable part of a real family. The Guineveres see this as their last chance for escape and pin their hopes on caring for, and eventually going home with, the remaining boys.
Domet crafts a rich and detailed setting with the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent. It’s full of life and conflict from Sister Fran, to the quietly desperate, alcoholic Father James, to the other girls staying there. The characters are fully realized and we get to know each of the Guineveres in detail by the end of the story. Woven throughout the book are the girls’ “revival stories,” the events that led them to the convent in the first place. Written from the perspective of each Guinevere, the revival stories read like a confession of their “unholy lives” before they came to the convent. Domet cleverly frames every aspect of The Guineveres to reflect the setting of the Catholic convent. It’s this attention to detail that brings the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent to life in a beautiful and satisfying way.
Domet addresses many profound concepts in The Guineveres, especially in regards to religion. Interstitial tales of female saints give valuable insight to the mindset of the sisters and girls in their care. These stories detail the unbearably harsh circumstances of these women of faith, but they also celebrate the determination of belief and show that there can be a grace in suffering. I believe this is the basis for the Guineveres’ mantra, “everything happens for a reason,” a phrase the girls repeat often, trying to convince themselves that their suffering has meaning, and that it has an end. The girls question their faith and mourn the loss of their families throughout the story. They challenge what is told to them by the sisters and priests and lament the changes their bodies are undergoing.
The Catholic tradition is handled respectfully and the novel offers a fascinating and detailed glimpse of the Catholic world. The convent really is a world unto itself. The war taking place across the ocean is only ever referred to as “the war.” No major details about the world at large come into play at the convent, which masterfully reinforces the theme of isolation and the girls’ desire to fit it with the rest of the world.
The questions of faith the girls struggle with reflect their own insecurities about the loss of their parents and subsequent abandonment. In essence, they hope for and doubt love as much as they hope for and doubt their faith, important reflections, especially at their age. We all question our circumstances at some point in our lives, and, from the answers we find, we come to terms with our own beliefs. It’s how we determine our faith, our place in the world, and Sarah Domet’s Guineveres do so through a complex, vivid, and poignant coming of age experience that brings the girls face to face with some of the most difficult to accept realities of life.
Though the book is thoughtful and delicately written, the constant seriousness of the tone can be a bit overbearing at times. That said, The Guineveres is a profound and love-filled story populated with rich characters and stunning revelations. Sarah Domet credits The Virgin Suicides as inspiration for her book, so fans of Jeffrey Engenides’ novel owe it to themselves to read The Guineveres.
** Full disclosure: Dr. Sarah Domet was a lecturer at Georgia Southern University. James Cody Phenis was a student in one of Dr. Domet’s courses but has otherwise no direct relationship with the author of The Guineveres.