Saints for All Occasions: A novel
Reading Saints for All Occasions is like walking into the kitchen of the big Irish family at the center of this new novel by bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan: It’s easy to sit down and listen to the compelling stories of the varied narrators, most of them relatives and old friends, some of them stereotypes, all of them basically good souls, and each with troubles below the surface.
Indeed, it’s so much fun that the reader can swat away the nagging bits that don’t make sense.
“As a kid,” muses Julia, the outsider daughter-in-law raised by atheist, liberal professionals, “she liked to imagine herself as one in a raucous brood of siblings, forever fighting over their toys or who got to sit in the front seat. She fantasized about a mother who did not work but instead stayed home and baked brownies…[who] kept a well-stocked fridge, which contained things like Jell-O pudding and whole milk and bologna.”
“But when Julia actually encountered this mother, in the form of Nora”— her Irish-American mother-in-law—“she was slightly appalled.”
The saga begins in 1957, when Nora Flynn, 21, and her sister, Theresa, 17, come to Boston so that Nora can marry Charlie Rafferty, her neighbor and presumed fiancé back in their small farming village in County Clare, Ireland. Charlie has emigrated nearly a year earlier.
“Theirs was no great love story,” Nora reminds herself. “From an early age, Nora had understood that the [her family’s] farm would go to her brother, that she and Theresa were expected to do their part. To marry, to vanish.”
Actually, Nora expects Theresa—beautiful, vivacious, popular, smart—to become a teacher and find the perfect American husband. That plan is ruined when Theresa, seduced by a dance-hall charmer, becomes pregnant. As Nora sees it, the responsible solution is for Theresa to hide away until the baby is born and then for Nora and Charlie to pretend that the child, Patrick, is theirs.
Nora and Charlie proceed to have three more children of their own—John, Bridget and Brian—without ever telling them or anyone the truth about Patrick. For her part, Theresa runs off to New York and eventually becomes a cloistered nun, renamed Mother Cecilia.
As the book opens, in 2009, Patrick has just died in a drunk-driving crash.
Sullivan does a masterful job of unraveling the layers of lies that stem from the first lie about Patrick’s birth, showing how each successor inexorably entangles the family into yet more falsehoods. For instance, why is it so terrible that John—a political consultant—takes on the State Senate campaign of Rory McClain, a kid from their old neighborhood, except perhaps for the fact that Rory is a Republican?
“The original, her sister’s doing,” Nora thinks, after viewing Patrick’s body in the morgue. “All those that followed, an attempt on Nora’s part to preserve what the first lie had done, each one putting Patrick ever more out of joint. She had accepted it as the price of keeping him safe.”
There are also some fascinating and troubling scenes that vividly illustrate how good Catholic families, in Ireland and the U.S., ignored for so long the hints that their local priests were abusing their sons and daughters.
The big problem with the novel is that its key premise—that Theresa becomes a nun—just isn’t believable, despite pages and pages of inner monologue.
“Here, in this place, through these women, Theresa had felt the pure presence of God in a way she hadn’t since she was a child.” Well, okay. But Theresa hasn’t shown any interest in God since those few childhood moments. She’s been a party girl, an eager student, and an agonized mother, but never someone yearning for spiritual connection.
Moreover, in chasing so many subplots—the rupture between Nora and Theresa; Bridget’s faltering attempts to tell Nora that she’s a lesbian and that she and her partner are planning to have a baby; John’s financial fears; his adopted daughter’s secret desire to learn more about her Chinese parentage; plus more—the book loses the powerful point that it began with, the unbearable pain of a mother’s grief when her child dies.
Still, Saints for All Occasions is an engrossing read with likable characters, unexpected plot twists, and an easy flowing style.