The Confessions of Frances Godwin by Robert Hellenga


What an odd book this is. I can't write about it without making the big revelation, so be forewarned. The story is told by the retired Frances, looking back on her life.


The book is set in Galesburg, Illinois, where Frances went to Knox College and fell in love with her Shakespeare professor whom she eventually married. She taught Latin at the high school while he continued to teach at the college. It begins to look more unusual when you learn that Frances speaks Latin with a local priest. And we hear about the early visits with her Polish family when Paul proves himself worthy by drinking warm buttermilk and killing the hog and otherwise helping with the slaughter while drinking shots of schnaps.

The years roll by with Paul playing jazz while she plays Bach and works on a translation of Catullus and their daughter Stella grows up and attends Knox College. Things take a turn when Stella takes up with Jimmy, an ignorant, violent felon. She had been studying to be a poet but then learned to drive a big rig. Paul dies of cancer and not long afterwards, Jimmy pushes the daughter from the moving truck. Stella survives and is brought to Galesburg by her new true love, Ruthie. Frances drives to the truck stop where she knows she will find Jimmy and kills him. Though a policeman suspects her, she has been smart enough to avoid detection. 

Life is rolling along as usual until one day when Frances is waiting at the local church until confession ends to go out with the Latin speaking priest for a drink. While she is waiting in the church, God begins pushing her to confess the murder to her friend. This goes on for some weeks and God tells her some startling news (the dot com bust is about to happen, where a long-lost codex of Catullus can be found in a library in Verona) and threatens to expose her murder. The police are given a potentially damning tip, but she still eludes them and decides to wait for the priest elsewhere.

Years pass and Frances retires. Her friend the priest is now in Rome (she suspects God had a hand in this change). Because she has discovered the old car in the garage is worth real money, she is able to travel, and decides to go to Rome and confess to her friend. Her confession is truly odd: she berates herself for being too cheap to buy the big telescope her husband wanted, for selling the good piano he loved, and for killing Jimmy. The priest tells her to have a grappa and a good night's sleep. She sits on the steps of the Piazza Santa Maria of Trastevere all evening and makes a good connection with a young couple with a baby. When she goes back home, she retrieves the old piano from its current owners and we hear in great detail about the restoration and her new friend the piano tuner. 

 It is good to remember that a single deed does not define a person's life. Frances had such a full and lively life with good friends and consuming interests. Still, she murdered a man. 

Robert Hellenga, The Confessions of Francis Godwin, Bloomsbury USA, 2014, 320 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

Add comment



Recent Posts


Blogs I Like