Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: Is there redemption after a lifetime of lies?

Review of: Saints for All Occasions
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf   
Source: Purchase, Half Price Books
Grade: A

There’s only one thing more horrifying for widowed Nora Rafferty than learning her oldest son, the one she always called “my Patrick” has been involved in a drunken car crash, a crash that will end his life before she can even reach him in the hospital. It’s having to call her long-estranged sister with the news. The sister who, unknown to Nora’s three surviving children, is the woman who really gave birth to Patrick 50 years earlier. The sister who, in J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions, fled to a convent soon after the birth, leaving her infant son to be brought up by Nora and her newly-married husband, Charlie Rafferty.

 It started with the 1958 voyage of Nora Flynn and her younger sister, Theresa, from their farm in Ireland to a new life in the United States. Nora was engaged to Charlie, the son of a neighboring farmer, who had already immigrated to the States and was waiting to marry Nora when she arrived.

But Theresa had never known any mother except Nora, who had cared for her since the death of their mother while Theresa was still a baby. How could she leave Theresa, still in her teens, at home, to the mercy of their father’s uncertain temper and increasing thirst for whiskey?

What will happen to Theresa when Nora and Charlie are married? “She can come with us if you like,” Charlie replied when Nora wrote to him. Little did he realize, an ocean away, that Nora is having second thoughts about marriage, that she dreads the whole prospect of leaving everything she knows to go to a strange land, bearing the responsibility for the increasingly lively and rebellious Theresa.

Or that Theresa, never the stay-at-home, will defy her sister’s too-gentle authority to sneak out of the rooming house where they live until Charlie and the increasingly-reluctant Nora can wed. Or that Theresa will meet a dashing man who will leave her pregnant and unwed, a desperate situation for a naïve Catholic teenager in the 1950’s.

When Theresa refuses to give her baby up for adoption, Nora proposes an alternative: that she and Charlie will house Theresa and the child, with Nora counterfeiting pregnancy to pass baby Patrick off has her own. In return for Charlie’s participation in this well-intentioned but disastrous charade, Nora will finally agree to their immediate marriage.

When Theresa walks out in the middle of the night, Nora at first hopes she will return, then comes to dread Theresa’s return. Because Patrick is really and truly Nora’s son. Or isn’t he?

From one seemingly small evasion of truth, more spread ripple outward. If Patrick’s mother can’t be acknowledged, perhaps, Nora thinks, she shouldn’t acknowledge that she even has a sister who is that unknown mother.

If Nora’s husband Charlie isn’t the father of Patrick, Nora doesn’t dare acknowledge the source of funds she blackmailed the true father out of, money that enabled the Rafferty family to move to a neighborhood where nobody knew their history. Finally, no family member’s issues can be acknowledged, not the same sex partnership of Nora and Charlie’s daughter Bridget; not the infertility of son John and his wife, and certainly not the reason for Nora’s extraordinary dislike of John’s political clients; not Patrick’s alcoholism or the possibility that his death was a suicide; or the failed career of the Raffertys’ youngest son, Brian.

And so on, as the family guilt, lies, and resentments rise to a climax with Patrick’s death.

Despite her good intentions, Nora is not a likeable character, but Sullivan makes even her worst aspects understandable, even pitiable. And Saints for All Occasions keeps the story moving with shifts between its host of secondary characters, and between past and present time periods, tantalizing the reader with the possibility that even a clan as entangled as the Raffertys can find redemption. 

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