Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991)

by Gail Godwin

If the title Father Melancholy's Daughter makes you suspect this is a downbeat book that depressives should avoid, you're guessing wrong.

Yes, Father Melancholy — the Rev. Walter Gower — frequently goes behind what he calls his "Black Curtain." But Father Gower, an Episcopal priest in a small town in Virginia, is a pleasure to spend time with — kind, intellectual, and sincerely religious. His depression takes the form of low self-esteem, and he continues his clerical duties through depressive episodes, even considering them a message from God. He and his daughter Margaret, the narrator, are living with a wound that might make anyone depressed. Their wife and mother, Ruth, left on a vacation with a friend when Margaret was 6 and never returned; less than a year later, Ruth was killed in an auto accident.

Despite the title, depression isn't really the nub of the book. Margaret, not Father Melancholy, has the lead role. She is mature beyond her years, smart, with an acute perceptiveness. Probably because of the circumstances of her upbringing, she has a counselor's skill of asking the right question to draw someone out. Margaret grew up deprived of a mother, but the relationship with her father is one that many people can only dream of having with a parent. Their love, commitment, and mutual regard are palpable. Although some readers might feel that their bond holds Margaret back, her example argues that you don't always have to make a break with home in order to grow up. Anchoring the father-daughter devotion is devotion to their faith. The book is sprinkled with Christian theology, but in a seeking rather than a preaching way, so it shouldn't be a turnoff to nonbelievers.

At the end Margaret makes a decision that is the finest tribute she could pay to her father. In the later Evensong (2000), Godwin continued Margaret's story.


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