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Review: Godmother, by Carolyn Turgeon

Reviewed by Cherie Priest

Don’t be fooled by the cheerful colors and whimsical design of Godmother,the second novel by critical darling Carolyn Turgeon (Rain Village). Though the premise is light and terribly sweet, the novel itself is a crushingly sad story told with beauty and earnestness; it is both urgent and strangely languid. It is a fairy tale in the oldest and newest sense—grim to the core, but postmodern and fresh enough to touch a modern audience.

So far as anyone knows, “Lil” is an elderly woman who works at a used bookstore in New York City. Her boss is a divorced forty-something, heir to quite a lot of money, and generally unlucky in love. Her new friend Veronica is beautiful, vivacious, and still mourning the death of her boyfriend in a car accident some years before. It’s a match made in heaven if Lil can arrange it, and it ought to be a cinch—for beneath Lil’s clothes hide a pair of feathery white wings that mark her as a Godmother. 

But in Lil’s past lies a terrible mistake. A moment of weakness changed history and legend forever, when the godmother fell in love with the prince and Cinderella never made it to the ball. Lil was cast out of the kingdom of fairies, doomed to walk the earth as a human, never again to fly and never again to see Prince Charming. 

But Fate is sometimes fickle and strange signs align, all of them pointing to the possibility of redemption. Kind of.

Other signs are aligning too, tragically balanced to imply another possibility. What manifests in the world of fairy may become apparent in the world of humankind, perhaps; or perhaps Lil teeters on the edge of perfectly normal dementia, quietly tormented by a long-ago crime that she cannot bear to remember. 

This is a mournful story, so marinated in despair and longing that at times it’s tough to turn the pages; but the prose is so lyrical and precious that it can’t be ignored. Lil is an exquisite character—largely responsible for her own isolation, and not altogether noble in her suffering in a way that is despicably human. She hides a secret identity that might or might not be a figment of her imagination, and you desperately want to believe in her. 

It’s a real trick to make a novel this bleak into something so beautiful that it’s impossible to put down, but Turgeon’s gift for language carries you past the painful parts. In this way, the small triumphs are writ large—and the small glimpses of hope and magic are soaring in their bliss, even when they’re irrational, and maybe even when they’re altogether imagined. But whether the doddering protagonist is fey or merely befuddled, Godmother is a transcendent little gem of a book.

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