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BookBrowse Reviews The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

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The Guineveres

by Sarah Domet

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet X
The Guineveres by Sarah Domet
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2017, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Emily-Jane Hills Orford
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In a secluded convent, four girls learn the nebulous definition of home while grappling with life's larger purpose.

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.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2016, and has been updated for the August 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Concept of Sainthood

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