Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  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.

Related Review: Maine

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Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Summers at the family beach house in Maine with all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, and cousins lovingly connecting – singing Irish songs, racing into the surf –  sounds ideal, but, of course, family gatherings always have an undercurrent.  In J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, it’s all about the dysfunctional relationships among the women and the beachfront property won in a war-time bet.

In the first half of the book, Sullivan prepares the foundation for the story, introducing each of the women in her own voice with her own chapter, revealing loyalties and jealousies, fears and traumas – they look fine but are all a mess under the surface.  Mother Alice is a hard woman to like; in old age, she’s retained her beauty as well as her prejudices about anything and anyone who does not meet her conservative standards.  Her daughters, Clare and Kathleen, have escaped her influence but try to retain a respectful silence while seething in private about her.  Anne Marie, the daughter-in-law, always trying to please, has Alice’s favor on the surface, but seems ready to crack under the pressure of being perfect.

Sullivan uses religion and Irish family ties as a caustic undercurrent.  Everyone prays, but the church offers little comfort and a lot of Catholic guilt.  Alice, trying to make up for an old sin against her sister, donates the Maine property to the church – without telling her children.  Her daughter, Clare,  gets rich selling First Communion medallions and other religious artefacts on the internet.  Daughter-in-law Anne Marie prays more than the others – when not obsessed with redecorating her dollhouse.  Kathleen, the black sheep – divorced and “living in sin” in California, has a worm farm and battles the old family curse of alcoholism. Her daughter, Maggie, is the frontrunner of the next generation: Maggie is pregnant and unmarried, Cousin Fiona is gay  – but no one is telling Grandma Alice.

Sullivan cleverly teases with secrets, forcing the reader to slog through chapters of angst, personal grudges, and family drama, hoping to uncover why Alice blames herself for her sister’s death in a fire, what horror happened at the patriarch’s funeral, when Maggie will tell about her pregnancy, how Alice will finally implode…    She reveals the family secrets slowly in flashbacks and finally offers reasons for the bitterness and despair.  Eventually, the women come together at the beach in Maine – Alice, Kathleen, Anne Marie, and Maggie – resolving the issues they have with each other and with themselves.

Like any Irish saga, this one is full of anxiety, despair, and drinking – but Sullivan offers her own brand of redemption and adds some humor.  Alice’s decision to leave the million dollar beach property to the church seems in character, and perhaps every family’s nightmare – that grandma will die and leave it all to the church – but, in the end, the decision saves everyone.   The story was too long, with too much anxiety for me, but the characters reflect women’s universal fear – will I become my mother?