The Guineveres by Sarah Domet features four teenaged girls, all named Guinevere, who by one means or another find themselves at Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration, a convent/girls’ orphanage and school/nursing home. Vere, who tells the story, is the first Guinevere to arrive. She is the most pious and the kindest. During morning roll call a short time after her arrival, Sister Fran calls out, “Guinevere,” and two voices respond. Vere discovers Ginny has arrived. Over the course of the next year, two more Guineveres come to Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration: Win and Gwen. The four call themselves The Guineveres.
They have names for the other girls as well. The Specials are the girls who still hear from their parents. They receive letters and phone calls and sometimes small presents. The Sads are girls whose parents died suddenly or violently by fire, auto accident, or suicide. The Poor Girls reside at Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration because their parents could not feed and care for them. They all arrive thin and malnourished. In the cafeteria, their plates never need scraping. The Delinquents are the girls who got into trouble and their parents sent them away. The Delusionals consist of only Reggie and Noreen, two who don’t fit into larger groups though Reggie tries hard to be part of The Guineveres, even telling them her parents thought of naming her Guinevere or that her middle name is Guinevere because The Guineveres tell Reggie that only girls properly, officially named Guinevere can be part of the group. Rules are rules after all as the nuns are fond of reminding the girls. The girls who are almost eighteen, the ones who will leave Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration as soon as they turn eighteen, form the last group.
All of The Guineveres want to leave Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration. They want to go back to their mothers and fathers. Sadly, they do not hear from their parents. They are all at Our Lady for various reasons, most of which are unknown to them. In all four cases, the parent or parents, simply drove the girls to the convent, far into the country, and left them there without explanation. Upon arrival, the girls must don the school uniform, give up all their meager possessions which they brought with them, and conform to the rules—of which there are many.
Girls who do not follow the rules strictly receive quick punishment. The punishment ranges from saying hail Marys to working in the nursing home. The harshest punishments are called JUG: Justice Under God. In the beginning of The Guineveres, Vere, Ginny, Win, and Gwen, get into serious trouble that merits them three months of JUG duty: serving in the nursing home, a duty they all more than dislike.
In the nursing home, they must take the elderly people’s vital signs and record them. They also must do other more personal duties, such as helping the patients use the bedpans and bathe the patients. Their tasks change suddenly when five comatose soldiers are brought to Our Lady to be housed. Sister Fran tells the girls that everyone must help the War Effort, always spoken in capital letters to show the importance. The soldiers do not even have names; somehow in the heat of battle, they have lost their dog tags, so they are numbers on the charts rather than names. Each Guinevere chooses a soldier for whom to care and whom they call “my boy” from that time forward, even years after they are all adults. They lavish care on the soldiers hoping they will awaken. The fifth soldier is being cared for by Ebbie, who is almost eighteen. Ebbie’s “boy” awakens one day and can tell his name. His parents come and take him home, taking Ebbie along with them, breaking one of the rules about the girls not leaving until they are eighteen. Sister Fran tells The Guineveres that Ebbie “is almost eighteen and that going home to care for Joe in his home is her part of the War Effort.”
At this point, I should mention Father James, the priest who presides over Our Lady and the nearby church. Generally, the girls in the convent go to church in the convent, but because of the war, The Guineveres are pressed into service at the local church as altar servers—servers because they cannot be altar girls since such a thing does not exist. Father James and the nuns break the rules since too few boys are available to serve as altar boys. The Guineveres take this new duty in stride. Father James is deeply flawed and drinks too much, but The Guineveres do their best to help him complete his sermons and serve the parish.
I must admit that after a few chapters about martyred women, I started skipping those chapters. They are short and do not add to the plot, in my opinion! I am sure some readers would argue that the lives of these saintly women do play a part in the story, but I found I could keep up with the story just fine by skipping those short chapters and focusing on the story of The Guineveres.
Domet’s debut novel is worth reading. I look forward to another book by Domet. Interested readers can find some of her short fiction online at this link: https://sarahdomet.com/other-writing/. Domet does not tell the story of The Guineveres in a straightforward fashion. She weaves the past, present, and future together deftly to give hints into The Guineveres’ full lives. In the end, a fifth Guinevere joins the group, but must read the book to discover her story.
Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres has received high praise. For example, these lines from Elle tells readers about the story: “If you’ve been seeking a divine (in every sense) debut novel, you’ll savor Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres…. From heavenly start to earthbound finish, this book is resounding and revelatory on questions of family, faith, and friendship.”