The Growth of ‘The Guineveres’

Sarah Domet's debut novel began with a short story she wrote as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.

Dec 21, 2016 at 11:25 am

click to enlarge Sarah Domet - Photo: Flatiron books
Photo: Flatiron books
Sarah Domet
“It’s so surreal,” author Sarah Domet says when asked about the fact that her debut novel, The Guineveres, is now out in the world for all to experience. “You labor and labor and labor in this solitary confinement for so long, and then suddenly it’s here and people are reading it.”

More than a decade in the making, The Guineveres grew out of a short story Domet wrote as a graduate student while in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati. Domet drew heavily from her own experiences growing up as a Catholic schoolgirl on Cincinnati’s East Side, centering the book’s narrative on four young women, all named Guinevere, who form a union in an effort to survive their fates as subordinates to the nuns at a convent called the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration.

“You’ve been thinking about this book for so long, and it’s such a part of you, you’ve cultivated it and you sort of have protected it, and then you feel kind of vulnerable when it finally gets published, because then people can read it however they want to read it or say whatever they want to say about it,” Domet says. 

The Guineveres was published by Flatiron Books in early October. The reception to the book has been largely positive, garnering buzz from the blogosphere to The New York Times Book Review, which described The Guineveres as a “deft and lovely debut … it keeps unfolding and deepening, taking unexpected turns.”

Domet, speaking by phone from her home in Savannah, Ga., says that original short story — titled “Our Boys” in a nod to the four comatose soldiers who arrive at the convent for treatment — kept nagging at her.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about these girls and what their stories were and how they arrived at the convent in the first place and what happened to them afterward,” she says. “A lot of the questions the short story didn’t really answer because it was such a compact little slice of what the novel is now.”

Domet’s prose is by turns matter of fact and often quite lyrical, conveying the girls’ yearning to transcend their tightly controlled environment and their troubled origins — each of their families has decided to jettison them to the convent for one reason or another — with rare intimacy and psychological insight.

“I see this as a coming-of-age story about four girls who are trying to kind of carve out an identity for themselves,” Domet says. “They’re trying to understand their lives and the things that have happened to them and their families and ideas about friendship and things that are really more universal in nature: Who am I? Who am I going to become? How has my family impacted me? How is this institution, of which I am a part, impacting me? How do I carve out my identity even among people who have the same name as myself?”

The Guineveres brings to mind a host of likeminded stories, none more obvious than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, another incisive portrait of young women struggling to find their own distinct place in the world. While Domet admits that Eugenides’ novel was an influence, it was far from the only one.

“Somebody wrote that my book was an homage to Eugenides and his ideas of trapped girls and I thought, ‘It’s interesting that he seems to have cornered the market on trapped girls,’ ” Domet says. “I was a trapped girl! This isn’t an homage; this was the reality of my life being raised in an institution, which struck me as kind of funny. I love the work of Jeffrey Eugenides, but he wasn’t necessarily the only model that I looked to. I also love The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, which I think had a pretty big impact on this novel — maybe even more than The Virgin Suicides.”

Our conversation winding down, Domet returns to the fact that The Guineveres is finally out there and living a life of its own. 

“The longer it’s out in the world and published, the more I, as an author, become disconnected from it because I don’t matter anymore,” she says. “But I think that’s also the beauty of it. The most interesting thing to me is seeing how other people responded to particular moments of my book that I hadn’t seen myself — to be introduced to my own writing in some ways.”