Gail Godwin

Fiction by Gail Godwin

Flora Flora
A Novel

Published 2013


Read an Excerpt

Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Gail Godwin's penetrating and haunting narrative about intimacy and loss and remorse, set against a background of world-changing events.

Ten-year-old Helen and her summer guardian, Flora, are isolated together in Helen's decaying family house while her father is doing secret war work in Oak Ridge during the final months of World War II. At three Helen lost her mother and the beloved grandmother who raised her has just died. A fiercely imaginative child, Helen is desperate to keep her house intact with all its ghosts and stories. Flora, her late mother's twenty-two-year old first cousin, who cries at the drop of a hat, is ardently determined to do her best for Helen. Their relationship and its fallout, played against a backdrop of a lost America will haunt Helen for the rest of her life.

This darkly beautiful novel about a child and a caretaker in isolation evokes shades of The Turn of the Screw and also harks back to Godwin's memorable novel of growing up, The Finishing School. With its house on top of a mountain and a child who may be a bomb that will one day go off, Flora tells a story of love, regret, and the things we can't undo. It will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.


"I've long thought of Gail Godwin as a present-day George Eliot — our keenest observer of lifelong, tragically unwitting decisions.

Helen's story, which she tells us when she is an older woman, is focused on the summer when she was a precocious ten-year-old. Her mother is dead, and the "haunted little girl" has more recently lost her grandmother. Flora (the first cousin of Helen's late mother) is looking after Helen for the summer. Helen seems much smarter and more sophisticated than her unwanted, twenty-two-year-old companion from Alabama; Helen believes that Flora is the one who needs looking after.

'Remorse is wired straight to the heart,' the older Helen tells us. Gail Godwin's Flora is similarly wired — straight to the heart. The events of Helen's haunted and most formative summer are perfectly plotted to unhinge her; what happens to Helen and Flora will make Helen the woman (and the writer) she becomes. (Helen tells us that a collection of her stories is "about failed loves.")

Flora is a novel as word-perfect and taut as an Alice Munro short story; like Munro, Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth — one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives.

This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book." —John Irving

"Flora is a beautiful examination of character and the far-reaching repercussions of our actions. Gail Godwin brings grace, honesty, and enormous intelligence to every page."—Ann Patchett

“A classic southern tale galvanic with decorous yet stabbing sarcasm and jolting tragedy…. Godwin’s under-your-skin characters are perfectly realized, and the held-breath plot is consummately choreographed. But the wonder of this incisive novel of the endless repercussions of loss and remorse at the dawn of the atomic age is how subtly Godwin laces it with exquisite insights into secret family traumas, unspoken sexuality, class and racial divides, and the fallout of war while unveiling the incubating mind of a future writer."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“As usual with Godwin, the protagonists are surrounded by secondary characters…. Unsparing yet compassionate; [Flora is] a fine addition to Godwin’s long list of first-rate fiction bringing 19th-century richness of detail and characterization to the ambiguities of modern life.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[A] stirring and wondrous novel from Godwin…. [her] thoughtful portrayal of their boredom, desires, and the eventual heartbreak of their summer underscores the impossible position of children, who are powerless against the world and yet inherit responsibility for its agonies.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Godwin knows how to deliver rich, textured tales.” —Publishers Weekly (Best Summer Books 2013)

“Having Helen tell her story so many years after the fact is a brilliant strategy on Godwin's part—the novel is filled with sadness and regret, but also illuminated by the wisdom and understanding that distance lends.”—Valerie Ryan, ShelfAwareness

“Godwin also demonstrates once again her superior ability to elucidate the psychology of young women… Flora is a tightly focused, painful and eventually eruptive novel. Its ruminative, sometimes regretful narrator explores the complex heart of a child, showing us that it's not inevitably a sweet, gooey thing. It can be, as well, a shuddering volcanic island with but a single haunted inhabitant.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A superbly crafted, stunning novel by three-time National Book Award award finalist Godwin (A Mother and Two Daughters), this is an unforgettable, heartbreaking tale of disappointment, love, and tragedy. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“In a coming-of-age novel as exquisitely layered and metaphorical as a good poem, Godwin explores the long-term fallout from abandonment and betrayal, the persistence of remorse and the possibility of redemption.”—More magazine

“Gail Godwin’s Flora sneaks up on you. The premise is small, but ambitiously so in the ‘small, square, two inches of ivory’ sense that Jane Austen used to describe her novelistic palette….The ending is tumultuous, but Godwin, the author of 12 previous novels and a three-time National Book Award finalist, never overreaches. Nor, unlike her young protagonist, does she show off. She draws out the haunting Big Questions — loss, regret, family bonds — as the novel progresses, and then she leaves them, smartly and humbly, for the reader to answer.”—Anne Trubek, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Flora is Godwin at her best, a compelling story about Helen’s growth of consciousness told with fearless candor and the poignant wisdom of hindsight.“—Valerie Miner, The Boston Globe

“On the surface, Gail Godwin’s luminous Flora is a quiet, simple novel about a few weeks spent in near isolation in the North Carolina mountains in the summer of 1945. Under the surface, however, run currents connecting the lives of the two main characters to those of dozens of others, present and especially past.”—Margaret Quamme, Columbus Dispatch

“Remorse may be the defining emotion for our narrator, Helen, but Godwin the writer has nothing to regret. Flora is an elegant little creeper of a story.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR

Bloomsbury | Paperback| 304 pages