J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland. One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son. Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.
The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives. Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed. How did Theresa become a nun? How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years? Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.
The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box. I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other. Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.
For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection. As the book ended, I wanted more and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.
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