What Would You Do for Love? The Ninth Hour

51ZwhNBTHvL._AC_UL160_   The first time I saw Sister Mary Kathleen without her veil and starched cowl, my thoughts sacrilegiously went to her weight, no longer hidden behind her flowing robes.  Nuns were my second mothers from first grade through high school from Sister Anita in second grade who hid me in the coat closet to read the upper level books while my classmates struggled through beginning readers, to Sister Marie Gabriel, who inspired all girls in her Latin class to don the habit to look like her – rumor had it she was once a Rockette.  Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour has nuns living through the early twentieth century, but Sisters Jeanne and Lucy had many of the same blithe goodness and no nonsense attitudes of the nuns I remember.

McDermott frames her story around a young girl, Sally, from before her birth to after her death.  The book opens with Sally’s father, Jim, committing suicide, an act with consequences throughout the story for unborn Sally, her pregnant mother Annie, and their interactions with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to their rescue.  The nuns give Annie a job in their laundry, where Sally plays as an infant and later entertains the nuns with her antics.

Sally spends all her free time with the nuns, and eventually, as many good Catholics girls do, she entertains the idea of becoming one of them.  Her shadowing of Sister Lucy ministering to the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids, and sickly poor quickly removes her aspirations to be a nurse.  Changing sheets, diapers, and bedpans does not appeal to her.

Thinking she might still have the calling to be a nun, Sally takes the train to the motherhouse in Chicago.  Having been sheltered from the real world, Sally quickly discovers she does not have the patience or the virtue to deal with the low life she encounters on the ride.  Unlike the saintly nuns she admires, Sally realizes she is more likely to punch someone than meekly hand over her money.  When she arrives in Chicago, she immediately takes the returning train home to New York.

Ignorant of her mother’s new love affair with the milkman who is married to an invalid, Sally finds the bed she shared with her mother now taken when she returns.  Mrs. Tierney, a friend of her mother’s, offers her a room in her family’s big house, and Mr. Tierney finds her a job at his hotel’s tea room.

The story bounces around in time frames, teasing with information (Patrick, Sally’s future husband, is one of Mrs. Teirney’s sons), and flows back and forth through the years.  Most of the story is told in flashback with Sally now dead and Patrick in assisted living.  Although the narrator seems to be one or more of their grandchildren, McDermott achieves the effect of reminiscing about the old days, with jumps to narration by the principals in real time.

The one constant vein throughout is the presence of the good nuns.  Each nun in the story follows a familiar stereotype but with an underlying note of human weakness: the take charge Sister Lucy who orders the emptying of chamber pots and deftly bandages sore limbs but uses her influence to punish a bully; the rulebreaker  Sister St. Saviour who rescues the widow and child but who would defy church doctrine by burying a suicide in the church’s consecrated plot; the hard working Sister Illuminata who labors in the damp basement never complaining about her arthritic knees but dances through her ironing; and Sister Jeanne, who finds good everywhere but facilitates the final murder in the story.   They are distinct individuals and despite their vision-blocking headgear, they see everything and know more about what’s happening around them than they let you know.

Like most stories with Irish characters at the core, death in The Ninth Hour is prominent, along with misery and despair.  Nevertheless, the love stories – about Sally and Patrick, about the nuns for those in their care, about Red Whelan who takes Patrick’s grandfather’s place in the Civil War – all conspire to create an uplifting message and remind the reader of a time when self-sacrifice meant more than self-serving.

 

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Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

9780385349406_p0_v1_s260x420Family secrets are Maggie O’Farrell’s forte and her latest novel – Instructions for a Heatwave – combines her facility for everyday drama with shocking revelations. If you’ve read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or The Hand That First Held Mine, you know to raise your expectations for a surprising twist in the plot.

The heat in London is unbearable when Robert, a retired banker, decides to take a walk, but never returns, leaving behind his Irish chatterbox wife, three grown children, and a couple of grandkids. The story moves across London, Ireland, and New York City in 1976 – just before the electronic media made secrets archaic. As Aoife (pronounced ee-fa, the Irish “Eve”) returns from New York City to the London house to help her brother, Michael Francis, and sister, Monica, in the search for their father, Robert’s disappearance fades into the background as O’Farrell reveals the diverting background lives of each character. Everyone has a secret and no one is happy, except perhaps Gretta, the frantic mother who lives in denial. Michael Francis, the eldest son, is a frustrated Ph.D. wannabe who teaches history at a local grammar school and has recently had a one-night stand with a fellow teacher; Monica, divorced from the love of her life, cannot seem to assimilate into her second marriage with her new husband and his young daughters; Aoife, hides her dyslexia from everyone, including Gabe, her new lover, who sends her love notes she cannot decipher. Gretta has an irrational penchant for cleaning out shelves when stressed, and cannot seem to stop talking or giving unwanted advice.

After finding check stubs that date back fifteen years, the family takes the ferry to Cork, Ireland, in search of their father. Of course, there is another woman, but not in the way you may expect; the checks are sent to a convent. As Gretta reveals the mystery, the truth jolts the family – first into further chaos but eventually into redemption with an ending that renews faith in the ability of loved ones to come through for each other when needed. The family rallies and survives, but Robert is another story. He appears in the beginning and in the end, only as a phantom catalyst. I wonder what a good book group would conclude about his future – O’Farrell leaves it open.

I liked the way Maggie O’Farrell can take dramatic incidents and weave them into meaningful moments that connected to me. When she described Aoife breathing in the scents of her parents’ bedroom, it brought back the first time I returned to my childhood home after my father died, and anyone who has siblings will recognize the pride within the rivalry, the understanding and the annoyance. O’Farrell’s stories are dramatically intricate, and if you are looking for neatness and straight story lines O’Farrell cannot deliver. After all, family relationships are messy.

Related Review: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Story of Lucy Gault

Beginning during the Irish upheaval of the early twentieth century, William Trevor’s tale of a young girl left behind – The Story of Lucy Gault – has a lilting Irish tone that turns the consequences of political unrest and attitude into a haunting tale. If not for author Heather Barbieri’s list of best books, I would have missed it.

When Captain Gault, a veteran of the British army and landowner in the beautiful area of Lahardane in Ireland, shoots at a group of young men who have poisoned his dogs and are trying to burn down his house, he wounds one and his pastoral life in Ireland ends. Although he is not the criminal, he tries in vain to make restitution to the family of the wounded boy. Realizing the assaults will continue, he decides to leave Ireland and relocate to Britain with his wife and young daughter, Lucy.

Reluctant to leave the only home and friends she has known, Lucy runs away. When her vest and sandal are found near the water, she is presumed dead, and her distraught parents begin an anonymous pilgrimage to lose themselves.

If you like to be surprised, you will want to stop reading here – but do find this book. Trevor is an Irish author, so expect angst and depression along with the tale of loyalty, regret, love and forgiveness – short listed for the Man Booker Award in 2002.

Spoiler Alert:

A week later, Lucy, who broke her ankle and has been foraging in the woods, is found, but her parents have traveled on without a trace. Lucy stays on at the house and farm, with the help of the cook and groundskeeper who return to the house to live with her; the family Solicitor finances her simple lifestyle and initiates the futile search for Lucy’s parents. The story continues to follow Lucy’s self-imposed exile – waiting for her parents to return; the parents as they keep moving to forget the daughter they think they have lost; and the tortured life of the boy who was shot. As they meander through their lives, all have been irrevocably changed by the desertion of Lucy, and sadly forfeit opportunities for happiness in their own lives.

Lucy finds her own redemption in a simple life. In a surprising twist at the end, she manages an extraordinary act of forgiveness.  With lyrical descriptions of his native Ireland, Trevor creates his own legend in The Story of Lucy Gault.

Have you read the book?

Brooklyn: A Novel

Do you believe that you control your destiny or are controlled by it?   No decisions are made in a vacuum, but how often do you just ride the tide of others’ opinions?

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn reads like an Irish Our Town with a slow inevitable pace that follows Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant.   Not entirely dissatisfied with her life at home, Eilis gives in to her family’s plans to get her a better future in America.

After a slow and hard crossing to the new world, Eilis survives the inevitable homesickness and alienation,  and with the help of the Irish parish priest and the Irish landlady – both with ties to the homeland – starts a new life.    As expected, with hard work and perseverance, she finds opportunity, work, a man, and her place in the new world – maybe her future.   Sudden tragedy calls her back to Ireland, and Eilis lives in limbo between possibilities – the displaced soul.

Tóibín is an Irishman, so you can expect rich language  and angst – with the themes of obedience and subversion to religion – and only a little sacrilege.    He clearly defines the struggle of the immigrant family and old Irish society.

When the story line seems quietly flowing and a little boring, Tóibín inserts unexpected emotions.   Suddenly, you realize you really did not know the characters at all.   Brooklyn starts out as a quiet easy read, and slowly involves you.  You will not be able to resist wanting to give Eilis a kick and wishing she would at least try to be a little more proactive.

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day – wear green and you’re Irish.

Besides the usual green beer and bagels, celebrate with Nuala Anne McGrail – the perfect romantic and feisty Irish character – complete with brogue and blessed with the gift of second sight.    Andrew Greeley introduces the adventures of the Irish beauty and her foil Dermot Michael  in Irish Gold – then keeps them going through 12 mystery thrillers from Dublin to Chicago.   The latest is Irish Tiger.

Greeley can get a little maudlin and religious in his other books, so stick to any title with “Irish” in the title and sure you’ll have a darlin’ read.

In two days, it’s St. Joseph’s Day – you can be Italian and eat donuts.