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Published September 20, 2017

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The Guineveres
The Guineveres
by Sarah Domet

Paperback (11 Jul 2017), 352 pages.
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN-13: 9781250086624
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

To four girls who have nothing, their friendship is everything: they are each other's confidants, teachers, and family. The girls are all named Guinevere - Vere, Gwen, Ginny, and Win - and it is the surprise of finding another Guinevere in their midst that first brings them together.

They come to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent by different paths, delivered by their families, each with her own complicated, heartbreaking story that she safeguards. Gwen is all Hollywood glamour and swagger; Ginny is a budding artiste with a sentiment to match; Win's tough bravado isn't even skin deep; and Vere is the only one who seems to be a believer, trying to hold onto her faith that her mother will one day return for her. However, the girls are more than the sum of their parts and together they form the all powerful and confident The Guineveres, bound by the extraordinary coincidence of their names and girded against the indignities of their plain, sequestered lives.

The nuns who raise them teach the Guineveres that faith is about waiting: waiting for the mail, for weekly wash day, for a miracle, or for the day they turn eighteen and are allowed to leave the convent. But the Guineveres grow tired of waiting. And so when four comatose soldiers from the War looming outside arrive at the convent, the girls realize that these men may hold their ticket out.

In prose shot through with beauty, Sarah Domet weaves together the Guineveres' past, present, and future, as well as the stories of the female saints they were raised on, to capture the wonder and tumult of girlhood and the magical thinking of young women as they cross over to adulthood.

The Assumption

We were known as The Guineveres to the other girls at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration because our parents all named us Guinevere at birth, a coincidence that bound us together from the moment we met. We arrived over the course of two years, one by one, delivered unto the cool foyer of the convent and into the care of Sister Fran. Each of us had our own story. Usually, our parents whispered that they loved us; they told us to behave. Our mothers gave us lipstick kisses on our cheeks, or our fathers said they hoped someday we'd understand. Then they drove away for good, up the one-lane drive and into a world that was easier without children. They all had their reasons.

But The Guineveres had our reasons for wanting to run away, which is how we found ourselves stowed inside the cramped quarters of a parade float, wheels whirring beneath us, gravel bumping us like unpredictable hiccups so that we had to brace ourselves against the chicken-wire frame that cut into our skin. Inside the float, the air was suffocating, a thick blanket thrown over us. Through tiny gaps in the tissue paper, we could see Sister Monica, the handle of our float thrown over her shoulder as though she were heaving a giant cross up that graveled hill. Half-circle sweat marks appeared at her armpits; she grunted as she struggled with the weight of us.

Soon we heard Sister Fran's voice snap from behind, "Keep with the pace. This is a parade, not a pilgrimage." She appeared in our line of vision, her whistle swinging around her neck in place of the cross pendant that the other sisters wore. Sister Fran looked almost translucent in the sunlight, her arms and legs exposed and her veins appearing like little road maps beneath her pale skin.

"It's quite heavy," Sister Monica said between short breaths.

"Sin is heavy," Sister Fran said. She trilled the whistle three quick times into a wincing Sister Monica's ear, then marched ahead toward the front of the parade.

Our float was the largest entry in the parade, and for good reason. We'd designed it to hide us. Eight feet at its tallest point, it was shaped like a hand of benediction—two perpendicular fingers set closer than a victory sign, resembling a double-barreled, gun-shaped hand pointed toward the air. Win and I stood crouched in the upright fingers, Ginny had curled her tiny body into the thumb, and Gwen pancaked herself inside the narrow hollow of the plywood base. Outside we could hear the cheering of onlookers, some squealing and hooting. The band boomed in the distance, not the slow, haunting organ music we normally heard in the chapel during mass, but something infinitely more upbeat, with horns and guitars.

The parade itself capped off the Sisters' annual August festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary, her earthly departure. At the end of her life, Mary was carried up to heaven on the wings of angels, her body too sacred to remain on earth, succumbing to dust like the rest of us. To be certain, The Guineveres didn't believe we were perfect, not like Mary. How could we, with Sister Fran's constant reminders of our waywardness or the sins of our bodies that shamed us for the simple fact that they were bodies and thus subject to the laws of biology? "The Flesh, girls, the Flesh," Sister Fran warned, her habit swaddled tightly against her face so she appeared to have no ears, though she always seemed to hear us, to overhear us, and so we often found ourselves whispering, even when we were alone. For The Guineveres, the festival marked not Mary's departure but our departure, our freedom. We refused to wait until we were eighteen; we were leaving the convent for good.

Of course, this was nearly two decades ago, and some of the details I've since forgotten. Call it willful amnesia or an act of forgiveness. I'm not sure which. I gave up writing in my notebook a long time ago—life got in the way, and I grew out of the habit. Besides, after everything that happened that year, there were some things I didn't wish to remember, some questions I couldn't bring myself ask. Back then, I hadn't yet realized that time had a way of providing the answers. Back then, I believed The Guineveres were all I had.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Guineveres by Sarah Domet. Copyright © 2016 by Sarah Domet. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Discuss the tension in the novel between the individual and the group, dramatized by Vere's frequent use of first - person plural narration, as she speaks for "The Guineveres." How do the girls develop a sense of self in the convent?
  2. Sister Fran tells The Guineveres: "It's an altar server, not an altar girl. There's no such thing as an altar girl." Win repeats this sentiment years later, at a dinner party, and then starts crying. What does the term "altar girls" mean to the Guineveres? How are gender norms enforced and disrupted in the novel?
  3. What do you make of the saints' revival stories, in which the young women frequently deny themselves physically, inflict harm on themselves, and mutilate their bodies? How do the saints' stories complicate The Guineveres' views on their own physicality?
  4. Female sexuality is clearly a tinderbox in the revival stories, both of the saints and The Guineveres themselves. Contrast this to the sisters who have subjected their sexuality to a supposed hig her purpose, through marriage to Christ. What commentary, if any, do you think the author is trying to make?
  5. Vere is completely embarrassed by her boy when he has an erection. She is clearly the least knowledgeable of The Guineveres about sex, and she seems mortified after she explores masturbation. Do you think this ultimately plays a role in her decision to stay at the Convent?
  6. The war and the war effort are frequently invoked in this novel, but the actual war is never named. What do you make of the author's decision to leave the historical context ambiguous? Did you form your own opini on about when the novel is set?
  7. The War as a background context has different effects on all of the characters. What do you think of how the war weighs differently on the male versus female characters in the story?
  8. Vere says that wonder and pain are difficult to tell apart. Do you agree? How does that sentiment resonate throughout the novel ?
  9. Discuss this passage from the story of Saints Irmina and Adela , the royal sisters — one a virgin and one a widow — who founded monasteries : "That's what faith teaches us: From hopelessness springs hope. From longing, desire." Do you agree? How does that view shape The Guineveres' stories?
  10. The idea of home is a major theme throughout the novel. What does home mean to The Guineveres?
  11. When the Sisters' shoes get too old to wear, they repurpose them as flowerpots. Vere observes: "Even out of doors, these shoes reminded us, we could not escape the omnipresence of the Sisters in our lives." What role d o the Sisters play in the novel ? Are they depicted sympathetically? Did your view of Sister Fran change over the course of the novel?
  12. Father James reveals that he joined the priesthood to dodge the draft. Vere wonders: "Did this make him a coward or a con man? A man of morals who let nothing stand between himself and what he believed? Better or worse than a young soldier who carried around with him a human ear? Or men who killed?" Did your opinion of Father James change throughout the novel? Do you believe the author is sympathetic toward him or not?
  13. Sister Fran claims that "faith and duty are one and the same." Vere responds: "I wondered what happened when someone performed her duty but didn't believe in the reasons behind it. Did that still count as faith?" What do you think?
  14. Vere describes the significance of the convent: " We lost ourselves within those gray walls. Or maybe we gave ourselves over. Later in their lives, long after they left, both Win and Ginny would admit to me that they didn't resent Father James or Sister Fran or the other nuns. They resented the convent itself, as though it were a living, breathing thing capable of such blame." How does the convent itself become a character in the novel? W hat do The Guineveres blame it for ?
  15. Discuss this line: " Memories are like that, like mustard seeds, tiny at first, but eventually the largest tree in all of the garden ." What is the importance of memory in this novel?
  16. Vere wonders " if the removal of choice is not a sort of gift, one allowing for supreme focus. In this way, I've come to understand the asceticism of the Sisters, if only obliquely." Does this justification of asceticism resonate with you? How is free will depicted in the novel?
  17. In Vere's revival story, her mother says: "If you love someone you have two choi ces: hold onto them or let them go . But clinging doesn't mean you love them more , and letting go doesn't mean you love them less." Do you agree?
  18. Confession plays an important role in the novel . Vere explains: " When I feel things, I confess them — and, like that, the weight lifts away from me. That's the beautiful power of absolution. It's not so much about the ritual as it is about the need to unburden our stories onto someone wh o will carry the weight for us." How do confession and storytelling relate and diverge in this novel?
  19. Vere describes nostalgia as " a willingness to embrace the pain of the past. " Do you agree? Are The Guineveres nostalgic?
  20. The Guineveres learn about "Ordinary Time," which Sister Fran explains: "it's far from Ordinary, Girls . It's a season of miracles, of mystery." How do the ordinary and the miraculous intertwine in this novel?
  21. Vere says that "people like Gwen don't wind up on prayer cards. [...] Yet I wish I could hold that vision of Gwen in my mind: Gwen with fluttering lids , so innocent, so fervent in her prayer, so hurt, so alone, so beautiful because of this." What does she mean? How is Gwen similar and different from the saints in the novel?
  22. Vere, we learn, is telling the story of The Guineveres for young Guinevere, as the girl's revival story. Vere explains, "Because that's what we all go on seeking in life — the whys. It's the one question for which we may never have the answer, and we turn to faith: so we can keep on asking without seeming redundant." Has Vere lost her faith by the novel's end? Or has she remained faithful, like one of the saints?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Flatiron Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

In a secluded convent, four girls learn the nebulous definition of home while grappling with life's larger purpose.

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It's a human need to know one's own identity, to belong to someone, to yearn for a place one can truly call home. For many, this is an illusion, a dream that may or may not be fulfilled. Vera, Ginny, Win and Gwen are unrelated to each other but share the same first name, Guinevere. They are also united by a similar fate, having been abandoned by their parents at a convent operated by the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration at a location that is kept fuzzy.

Not one of these girls believes that their placement in the convent, which is run by Sister Fran, was for their benefit. They worry they have been sacrificed to the highest degree, not unlike the multiple saints they are compelled to study. Feeling the pain of separation, they hope to find—and reunite with—their families. With this goal in mind, the girls plot seemingly impossible feats of escape.

The Guineveres challenges the reader's comprehension of saints and sainthood (see 'Beyond the Book') while exploring the concept of ultimate sacrifice that may endow a person with saint-like qualities. Vera narrates most of the novel as the Guineveres learn to accept or reject the religious teachings they are presented with. Domet interweaves stories of saints into the narrative and each holy figure she chooses seems to mirror, at least in some small way, the girls' feelings, trapped as they are in the convent until they turn eighteen. For example, the story touches on Saint Rose of Lima whose life was full of mostly self-inflicted pious suffering, much like the Guineveres.

Saint Guinevere (Genevieve in French) is the patron saint of Paris who became a nun at the age of fifteen. Does Domet allude to the holy figure here even if the girls in the novel have souls that are anything but saintly? Even the convent's name, Sisters of the Supreme Adoration, is relevant. Many of the saints mentioned in the story, Saint Rose of Lima, Saint Cecelia, the sister saints, Irmina and Adela, Saint Ita, and Saint Agatha, among others, had a personal adoration to a higher being, a higher power. And while the nuns teach the girls to similarly "adore" in the spiritual sense, the Guineveres instead learn to "adore" themselves and each other.

The story is both intense and compassionate as the reader quickly learns to love and admire each of the Guineveres for their unique qualities. Understandably, a sense of togetherness develops among the girls in spite of their desire to belong elsewhere. As they are cloistered within the convent, there is an unnamed war being waged beyond its walls (there are suggestions that it may be World War II). Four comatose soldiers arrive in the sick ward and the Guineveres each nurse and bond with one of them, pinning their hopes on "Our Boys," as a way out of the convent. But even well-plotted intent does not always go as planned, and things get complicated very quickly.

On the surface, The Guineveres is a coming-of-age story about young girls exploring their world and their bodies and, generally speaking, the meaning of life. They come from scattered backgrounds: one is the daughter of a single, homeless mother with mental issues; another is from a family shattered to discover their daughter's preference for other girls. But there is a deeper element to this novel, one that addresses the spiritual context of life and the world around us. Throughout the ups and downs of comradeship and hardship, sacrifice and disappointment, the Guineveres remain unified in one goal of wanting to go home, which is sadly, at best, a mere illusion of belonging.

Sister Fran encourages the girls to accept their fate and their reason for being where they are. "You'll learn, girl," she tells Vera, "God sent you here for a purpose." Each Guinevere must figure out, in her own time and on her own terms, what that purpose is. Gradually, reality sinks in and so does an acceptance of a sorts. "We changed. I can't say how, exactly, but we changed. A sense of calm washed over us. A sense of purpose, too."

The Guineveres is a powerful story, one that will not be easily forgotten.

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Atlanta Magazine
Domet's lively writing is as original as her plot, which knits the Guineveres' struggles together with stories of female saints. Poignant and often funny, Domet captures the fever of teenage desire by pinning it against the confines of a strict religious environment.

Publishers Weekly
Domet deftly weaves in the girls' individual stories and the stories of female saints into her structure, making this a satisfying read on multiple levels.

Kirkus
"Domet's (90 Days to Your Novel, 2010) energetic prose, institutional setting, Christian fabulism, and fervidly wacky plot - revolving around the ability of the comatose to get a hard-on - will appeal to fans of John Irving.

Library Journal
Starred Review. A first novel whose tone echoes that of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides…This phenomenal, character-driven story is mesmerizing.

Booklist
Starred Review. Domet's debut is a luminous bildungsroman, brimming with wisdom about how girls view themselves, each other, and the world around them.

Author Blurb Kevin Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of The Family Fang
This is an amazing book, a unique writer.

Author Blurb Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker's Wife
The Guineveres is a glorious debut. Sarah Domet is an enthralling storyteller who has an original voice and an ability to create unforgettable characters with a deep and abiding understanding of the human heart. Love, betrayal, forgiveness, it's all here. Readers will savor and rejoice.

Author Blurb Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
Sarah Domet's The Guineveres is a revelation, the way Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides was a revelation: rarely do we see a writer so young, so brilliant, who wears her brilliance so offhandedly, so charmingly, so winningly. Rarely do we see such a young writer so masterful in her control of language, of form.

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The Concept of Sainthood

In The Guineveres, Sarah Domet weaves the stories of eight saints—Rose of Lima; Cecelia; the sister saints, Irmina and Adela; Ita; Agatha; Alice and Christina the Astonishing. These holy figures have a relevance to certain themes in the novel including the concept of sacrifice, the sanctity of the female body, and the recognition of various mental illnesses. All these saints have their place in the Roman Catholic Church even though a few were not officially beatified.

Saint Christina the Astonishing was referred to as a saint during her lifetime and long after. She is also known as Saint Christina Mirabilis or Saint Christine the Admirable. Christina lived in Belgium in the twelfth century. She was born into a peasant family and orphaned as a child. After a severe seizure, possibly epilepsy, she made a surprising recovery in the church in front of the parishioners mourning her passing. Perhaps the most interesting connection to the Guineveres is Saint Christina's patronage of people with various mental illnesses and disorders and the professionals who care for them.

Saint Christina the Astonishing The sister saints, Irmina and Adela, were two seventh-century princesses who chose to found their own convents, when their father, the Frankish King Dagobert's plans for their marriages fell apart, one before marriage, the other shortly after. The two sisters devoted their cloistered lives to helping the very sick, particularly those suffering from the deadly plague.

The word "saint" is derived from the Latin word sanctus meaning holy; which is itself a translation of the Greek hagios, meaning to set apart.

While the overall concept of a saint as someone who is set apart from others by a degree of holiness is consistent across most Christian groups, there are differences at the doctrinal level as to what defines holiness and the necessity of saints as intermediaries with God. Also, the process by which someone is declared a saint has changed over time.

The early Christians held that a saint was any person who believed in Christ and in whom Christ dwelt. But over the following centuries many cults of sainthood sprang up at the local level and saints were declared by popular acclaim. Thus it is to be presumed that a distinction developed between those who simply believed in Christ and those who had died having done something particularly exceptional for their faith.

In 993 Pope John XV canonized Saint Udalric. This was possibly the first time that a Pope had used his authority to canonize a saint, that is to say to proclaim that Udalric was added to the sanctioned list (a.k.a. canon) of saints. Almost 200 years later in 1170, the Roman Catholic Pope Alexander III decreed that the prerogative of canonization was reserved only for Popes.

Broadly speaking, the Catholic Church teaches that anyone who is in heaven is a saint; but only proclaims a select few as saints after much investigation of their lives and undisputed miracles being attributed to them after their death. In proclaiming saints the church is not making saints, simply identifying them as such. Catholics believe that a person can ask a saint to intercede with God on their behalf.

In general, Protestant churches hold that any person who professes to be a Christian is a saint. It also teaches that individual believers can communicate directly with God; thus, to ask a saint to intercede on their behalf is unnecessary, even blasphemous.

With so many different understandings of the idea of a saint, it is no wonder the young Guineveres struggled with their own idea of sainthood.

Picture of Saint Christina by Patrick Lopez

By Emily-Jane Hills Orford

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