Saints for all occasions

J. Courtney Sullivan

Book - 2017

"A sweeping, unforgettable novel fromThe New York Timesbest-selling author ofMaine, about the hope, sacrifice, and love between two sisters and the secret that drives them apart. Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. Nora is the responsible sister; she's shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn't sure that she loves. Theresa is gregarious; she is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls on Dudley Street. But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan--a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand. Fifty years later, Nora is the matri...arch of a big Catholic family with four grown children: John, a successful, if opportunistic, political consultant; Bridget, privately preparing to have a baby with her girlfriend; Brian, at loose ends after a failed baseball career; and Patrick, Nora's favorite, the beautiful boy who gives her no end of heartache. Estranged from her sister and cut off from the world, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago. A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers,Saints for All Occasionsexplores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together"--

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Domestic fiction
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2017.
Main Author
J. Courtney Sullivan (author)
First edition
Physical Description
335 pages ; 25 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

EACH TIME I READ a family saga, I'm reminded that there's no swift way to narrate one. Since they first slouched out of Iceland a thousand years ago, they've been great, boggy beasts, multilayered and multifaceted, shambling across the generations, always with a dark secret regulating their patient pulse. Which is why now, when secrets have become the stuff of reality television and experience can be conveyed through emoticons, writing a family saga seems almost an act of faith. J. Courtney Sullivan's fourth novel, "Saints for All Occasions," covers five decades in the lives of a pair of Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn. Told in parallel narratives that eventually converge, the novel begins twice. Its first opening occurs in 2009 with the death of Nora's oldest son, Patrick, a middle-aged bar owner, in a car accident. A few pages later, we've traveled back to 1957, watching as Nora and Theresa are leaving the Irish village of Miltown Malbay to join Nora's fiance, Charlie Rafferty, in Boston. Practical, self-effacing Nora agreed to marry Charlie because his family owns the neighboring farm. But when his wastrel brother inherits instead, Charlie heads to America. Though she doesn't love him - or even particularly like him - Nora dutifully follows. Seventeen-year-old Theresa, Nora's opposite, "brave and beautiful and brash and clever," travels with her, hoping for more than a factory job but chiefly primed for romantic adventure. Predictably, their experiences in Boston diverge as soon as they take up residence in a Dorchester boardinghouse. While Nora settles into her traces as a seamstress, Theresa falls for the black-haired, Clark Gable-ish Lothario she meets at a dance. "That one looks like trouble," Nora observes the instant she spots him, and, no surprise, she isn't proved wrong. What is surprising (and surprisingly revealed both on the book jacket and early in the novel) is that brash and beautiful Theresa goes on to become a nun. And not just any nun: Theresa lives in a cloistered abbey in rural Vermont, spending her days doing chores much like the ones she left behind in Miltown Malbay. Why she makes this choice, and especially how it affects Nora, will require the rest of this carefully plotted novel to trace. Nora reluctantly marries Charlie, who turns out to be a better man than she thought. They cause whispers by having a son a bit too soon after the wedding, but life settles down, and two more sons and a daughter follow. We're also shown the tangled fates of these Rafferty children, adults who remain knotted to their mother despite their own dramatically different lives. John, Nora's overachieving second son, who "worked like a dog" and whose "entire life had been shaped by the quest for her approval," can never quite get her attention, though he marries well and becomes a wealthy Republican political consultant with a country club membership and a big house in the suburbs. His younger sister, Bridget, a classic tomboy as a girl, who despised dresses and hair bows, moves to Brooklyn and runs an animal shelter. Nora has "a knack for blocking out what she didn't want to be true," so she can't bring herself to understand why Bridget is so attached to her "roommate," as she refers to Natalie, Bridget's partner. For her part, Bridget can't face telling Nora that she and Natalie plan to have a baby. Meanwhile Brian, the youngest, a former baseball player who never got past the minor leagues, is back in his childhood bedroom, letting his mother fret about him and drinking too much. But the one Nora most cherishes, and worries over, is the difficult oldest son, handsome black-haired Patrick, a troublemaker from before he was born. Although each of the Rafferty children could use a few more contradictory moments, and the narration can become ponderous ("Sometimes Patrick went dark. He went somewhere they couldn't reach him."), Sullivan succeeds in creating a believably complicated, clannish Irish-American family, and the novel's most engrossing scenes occur when the Raffertys gather in Nora's kitchen to drink beer, laugh at inside jokes, finger old wounds and puzzle over their dour, conscientious mother. Because it's Nora, rather than Theresa, who emerges as the novel's most mysterious character. Its real drama involves her gradual transformation from a shy, unhappy young immigrant to an established matriarch, with a matriarch's long skein of pride and sorrow - and secrets. By ranging over decades, family sagas offer general as well as personal history, giving Sullivan an opportunity to sketch Boston's past, especially the shameful aspects that affect her characters: the busing crisis and the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Birth control, abortion and the struggle for gay rights are touched on as well, but Nora's family remains mostly occupied by their personal upheavals, as families usually are. "One decision could stay with you forever," Theresa thinks toward the end of the novel, "and yet you could live through almost anything." It's this kind of faith that long, expansive stories like "Saints for All Occasions" best demonstrate. Perhaps, these days, it's a faith we've never needed more. ? 'One decision could stay with you forever, and yet you could live through almost anything.' SUZANNE BERNE'S most recent novel is "The Dogs of Littlefield."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 16, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

On a terrible night in 2009, Nora Rafferty is woken with the news that her eldest son, Patrick, has died in a car crash, likely the result of his own drunken driving. In a haze of grief and rage, she telephones her long-estranged sister a cloistered nun and leaves a message informing her of his death. Sullivan's fourth novel is a quietly devastating look at the power a secret, in this case the secret of Patrick himself, can wield over an entire family for generations. The story jumps through time, from the 1957 arrival of sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn from Ireland to the present, each part narrated by a different member of the family, elegantly woven together to form a more complete, if not quite intact, picture of how the consequences of choices made by Nora and Theresa 50 years earlier came to define not only the two of them but each of Nora's now-grown children, who love and loathe their mother in equal measure. Sullivan once again expertly delivers a messy and complicated family story with sharp yet sympathetic writing.--Szwarek, Magan Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Sullivan's (The Engagements) latest is the story of Rafferty family matriarch Nora, her estranged sister, Theresa, and the secrets that an Irish Catholic upbringing led them to keep from their children. After leaving Ireland for Boston in the late '50s, the effervescent Theresa finds herself pregnant by a married man. Dour Nora agrees to care for baby Patrick as her own. Theresa moves to New York and pursues a career as a teacher before going into convent life, eventually becoming Mother Cecilia. Charismatic Patrick dies in 2009 after a life of drinking and letting his temper get the best of him. His overachieving brother John is agonizing about whether he's somehow responsible for Patrick's death after a revelation about the role of the politician John works for in an incident from Patrick's childhood. Their sister, Bridget, is resentful that Nora refuses to acknowledge her relationship with girlfriend Natalie, who will soon have a baby. Brian, the youngest, is living with Nora after a failed career in baseball. Patrick's funeral leads to a surprise visit from Theresa, much to Nora's chagrin. Sullivan has a gift for capturing complicated sibling dynamics, especially in a family ruled by Catholic repression. Nora is imprisoned by the need to avoid shame and being the subject of gossip. In contrast, Theresa allows her religion to free her by letting it influence her life. Nora's need for secrecy builds walls between John and Patrick, though Theresa's presence might finally reveal all. Sullivan's quiet ending is a satisfying conclusion to this rich, well-crafted story. 75,000-copy announced first printing. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Patrick is dead, a victim of his own drunk driving. His mother, Nora, stoically delivers the bad news to Patrick's siblings and makes the arrangements for a traditional Irish wake and funeral. She also calls her sister, Theresa, a nun living in a convent in New Hampshire, and steels herself to reveal the family secret she has been hiding for 50 years. Then the story line jumps back to Nora's immigration with Theresa from Ireland to Boston in 1957. Nora is not sure she wants to continue with the plans that brought her to America, but the young and naïve Theresa is eager to start her new life. When Theresa discovers that she is pregnant, Nora devises a plan to save her reputation, with the consequences revealed in scenes that alternate between past and present. VERDICT Best-selling author Sullivan (Commencement) brings her characters to life, capturing the complexities and nuances of family, tradition, and kept secrets. For all fiction readers. [See Prepub Alert,1/4/17.]-Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Of Catholic guilt, silences, and secrets: an expertly spun family drama, a genre Sullivan (The Engagements, 2013, etc.) has staked out as her own.Theresa and Nora, Irish sisters, have long since parted company, the break an event that neither has spoken of for half a century. Now, as Sullivan's latest opens, Nora's son Patrick has died, and as the family comes together to see him off, long-hidden secrets are unveiled. A whole constellation of them swirls around Theresa, explained away as "nothing more to Patrick than a distant aunt." But how to explain the truth? How to make up for all the choppy water that has passed between the two sisters, separated by an unbridged Atlantic? How to forgive one another? Sullivan lets some of the critical details out early: Patrick was a drinker, and he died in a drunken car wreck. Theresa was a religious whiz kid, more Catholic than the pope; quizzed by the bishop, she reels off doctrine to the letter, prompting the cleric to say to her father, "You've got a very bright child there. Are all your others as sharp as that?" The answer, "Heavens no. We don't know where she came from," speaks volumes about the story that will follow, though for all her knowledge, no one really expects Theresa to wind up in the nunnery, torn up by the more or less ordinary events of adolescence and given to saying "a string of novenas for forgiveness" for her perfectly excusable transgressionsexcusable now, of course, but not then, and not in the Ireland of the girls' youth. Sullivan is a master at making a sideways glance or a revealed detail add to a larger picture that she takes her time in building, one that might just as easily bear as its title a wise remark in passing: "Loving and knowing weren't the same."Sullivan often approaches melodrama, but she steers clear of the sentimentality that might easily have crept into this tale of regret and nostalgia. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1 In the car on the way to the hospital, Nora remembered how, when Patrick was small, she would wake up suddenly, gripped by some terrible fear--­that he had stopped breathing, or spiked a deadly fever. That he had been taken from her. She had to see him to be sure. They lived then on the top floor of the three-­decker on Crescent Avenue. She would practically sleepwalk through the kitchen and past Bridget's door, and then down the hall to the boys' room, her nightgown skimming the cold hardwood, the muffled sound of Mr. Sheehan's radio murmuring up from downstairs. The fear returned the summer Patrick was sixteen, when they moved to the big house in Hull. Nora would awaken, heart pounding, thinking of him, and of her sister, images past and present wound up in one another. She worried about the crowd he ran with, about his anger and his moods, about things he had done that could never be undone. She met her worries in the same old way. Whatever the hour, she would rise to her feet and climb the attic stairs to Patrick's bedroom, so that she might lay eyes on him. This was a bargain she struck, a ritual to guarantee safety. Nothing truly bad could happen if she was expecting it. Over the years, there were times when one of her other three consumed her thoughts. As they got older, Nora knew them better. That was something no one ever told you. That you would have to get to know your own children. John wanted too much to please her. Bridget was a hopeless tomboy. They had carried these traits along with them into adulthood. When Brian, her baby, moved away, Nora worried. She worried ever more so when he moved back in. But it was Patrick who weighed most on her mind. He was fifty now. For the past several months, the old fear had returned. Ever since John kicked things up again. Things she had long considered safely in the past. Unable to check on Patrick on those nights when the feeling arose, Nora would switch on the lamp and shuffle through her prayer cards until she came to Saint Monica, patron saint of mothers with difficult children. She slept with the card faceup on Charlie's empty pillow. Tonight, for once, she hadn't been thinking of Patrick. Of all things, she was thinking about the boiler down cellar. It had been clanging since just after supper. Adjusting the temperature didn't help. Nora thought she might have to bleed the pipes. As a last resort, she tried saying a rosary to make it stop. When this seemed to do the trick, she went to bed with a fat grin on her face, thus assured of her own powers. She was awakened not long after by the ringing of the telephone, a stranger's voice saying there had been an accident, she should come right away. By the time she reached the emergency room, pink flannel pajamas under her winter coat, Patrick was already gone. The ambulance had taken him to the Carney. It took Nora forty-­five minutes to get from home to the old neighborhood. They were waiting for her by the door: a doctor and a nurse and a priest about her age. The presence of the priest made it clear. She thought of how they left Dorchester all those years ago for Patrick's sake, but as soon as he was old enough he came right back. This would be where his life had started, and where it came to an end. They took her to a windowless office. She wanted to tell them she wouldn't go in. But she followed right along and sat down. The doctor looked terribly young for such a job, but then a lot of people were starting to look terribly young to her. He wanted Nora to know that they had tried to revive her son for close to an hour. They had done all they could. He explained in calm detail that Patrick had been drinking. That he lost control of the car and slammed into a concrete wall beneath an overpass on Morrissey Boulevard. His chest struck the steering column. His lungs bled out. "It could have been worse," the doctor said. "If he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, he would have been ejected from the car." How could it be any worse than death, she wondered, and yet she clung to this detail. Patrick had worn his seatbelt. He wasn't trying to die. Nora wanted to ask the priest if he thought all her fears had pointed to this moment. Or if they had been the thing to stave it off for so long. She felt that she should confess something. Her guilt. She knew they would think she was crazy if she said any of it out loud. She sat there with her lips pressed together, holding her pocketbook tight to her chest like it was a fidgety child. After the signing of papers, the nurse said, "We'll give you a minute with him, if you like." She led Nora to a room down the hall and closed the door. Patrick was lying on a gurney, a white blanket covering his body, a breathing tube protruding from his mouth. Someone had closed his eyes. From the hall and the rooms all around came the beeping of machines, the scurry of feet, and low voices. A burst of laughter from the nurses' station. But in this room, everything was impossibly settled, final. Still. Nora tried to recall what the doctor had said. It seemed that if she could just piece it together, figure out what was to blame, she might still have him back. She felt overcome with anger toward John. She returned to that moment last May, when he first asked if she remembered the McClain family from Savin Hill. Their oldest son had approached John to run his campaign for state senate. "They weren't very nice people," she said. "I don't think you should do it." What she meant was Don't do it. But John went right ahead. It had led to that terrible fight at Maeve's confirmation. Patrick and John hadn't spoken since. Patrick hadn't been himself. Nora had seen another article in the paper just yesterday, a slight agitation taking root in her chest, as it did whenever she saw Rory McClain's name in print. There was a photograph of Rory looking every bit the politician, that face so familiar to her, all black hair and toothy smile. His wife stood by his side, and three teenage boys, lined up according to height. Nora wondered if beneath the collared shirts and school picture day haircuts they were as wicked as their father and grandfather had once been. It seemed to her that a duplicitous nature must run in a family, like twins or weak knees. She hadn't read the article. Though she knew John would call to make sure she had seen it, Nora turned the page. She took in a deep breath now and told herself to put these thoughts aside. There wasn't much time left. Patrick had had a horrible mustache for the last two years, despite her begging him to shave it off. She let her hand hover in the air just above it, so as to hide the proof, and then she looked at him. She looked and looked. He had always been handsome. The most beautiful of all her children. After a while, the nurse knocked twice, then opened the door. "It's time, I'm afraid," she said. Nora pulled a small plastic hairbrush from her purse and smoothed his black curls. She checked his pulse, in case. She felt as if a swarm of bees were darting around inside her, but she managed to let Patrick go, as she had on other occasions when it felt impossible. When he was five and frightened about the first day of kindergarten, she slipped a seashell into his pocket as the yellow school bus came into view. To get you through, she said. In the fluorescent-lit hallway, the priest placed a hand on her shoulder. "You're in better shape than most, Mrs. Rafferty," he said. "You're a tough cookie, I can tell. No tears." Nora didn't say anything. She had never been able to cry in front of other people. And anyway, tears never came right away at a moment like this. Not when her mother died when she was a child, and not when her husband died five years ago, and not when her sister went away. Which was not a death, but something close to it. "Where in Ireland are you from?" he asked, and when she stared back blankly, he said, "Your accent." "County Clare," she said. "Ahh. My mother came from County Mayo." The priest paused. "He's in a better place." Why did they send the clergy at times like this? By design, they could never understand. Her sister had been just the same. Nora pictured her, in full black habit--­did they even wear those anymore? She would wake up this morning at that tranquil country abbey, free from all attachment, free from heartache, even though she had been the one to set the thing in motion. All the way home, unable to think of how she would tell the children, Nora thought of her sister. Her rage was like another person sitting beside her in the car. When the children were young, Charlie was always telling stories about home. The one they liked best was about the Bone Setter. "Did I ever tell you who came when you broke a bone in Miltown Malbay?" he would ask. They would shake their heads, even though they'd heard it before. "The Bone Setter!" he'd cry, clasping the closest child in his arms, the child squealing in delight. "You didn't go to the doctor unless you were dying," he said. "No, if you broke something, like I did--­my ankle--­this fine man would come to your bedroom and snap you right back into place with his hands, as good as new." Charlie made a popping sound with his tongue. "No drugs. Didn't need them." The children went green when he told it. But then they begged him to tell it again. As usual when he spoke of home, Charlie left out the worst bits. The man had set his ankle slightly off. It led the rest of his body to be out of balance so that eventually, his knees bothered him, and later, his back. The lies they had told were like this. The original, her sister's doing. All those that followed, an attempt on Nora's part to try 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. John always complained that Nora favored Patrick. Bridget said that until she was five years old, she thought his name was My Patrick, since that's all Nora ever called him. She had thought that someday they would understand, they would know the whole story, though she could not imagine telling it. Patrick had asked, but she could never bring herself to answer. She hadn't even told them that she had a sister. Her mind wandered again to the abbey. Those women outside the world, capable of casting off everything, even their own names. Nora had realized long ago that the walls the nuns used to keep others out could just as easily wall a person in, imprison her with her thoughts. Let her sit with this, then. The weight of it. It wasn't right that Nora should have to carry it on her own. As soon as she reached the house, she went to the junk drawer and found her old address book. She called the abbey for the first time in more than thirty years. She told the young one who answered that her name was Nora Rafferty and she needed Mother Cecilia Flynn to know that her son Patrick had died late last night, in a car crash, alone. Outside, she could hear the first of the commuters driving down the hill, headed for the highway that would take them to the city, or else to the ferry, where they'd drink a cup of coffee as the boat cut a course across the darkened harbor. Nora took a notepad from the counter and made a list. She brewed a pot of tea in case company should arrive sooner than expected. She sat down and wept, her elbows on the table, her face cupped in the cool palms of her hands. Part Two -0 1957-­1958 2 Their father hired a hackney to drive them as far as Ennistymon. From there, a bus would carry them the rest of the way to Cobh. At six in the morning, he stood smoking by the kitchen window, tapping his foot, waiting for Cedric McGann's black Ford to come chugging up the road. Nora hadn't slept. While the house was silent, by the light of an oil lamp, she made certain they had everything they needed. She checked three times to be sure. Now, their suitcases by the door, she sat at the table, hoping he might tell her not to go. But her father wouldn't look at her. "Are you all right?" she managed to ask. "Right as the mail," he said. An hour ago, she had fixed him a boiled egg. It was still on the plate, untouched. In one of his letters, Charlie said his father's cousin in Boston was a marvelous cook, that Nora had never seen the likes of her food. Nora had told her father that the woman was strict so he wouldn't worry, but in fact Charlie reported that she barely noticed the family members who came to stay. Girls lived on the second floor, and boys on the third, and as long as you minded your manners, Mrs. Quinlan didn't bother you. Charlie said they wouldn't live in her house for long. Once they were married, they would get their own apartment. What about Theresa? she asked him when she wrote. She can come with us if you like, he replied. Or she can stay on at Quinlans'. We won't be going far. Nora watched her father at the window. She felt like there had been a death, that mix of sorrow and anticipation that arose to fill the space when someone vanished. Her sister came bounding into the room, giddy, wearing her nicest dress. Nora was about to tell her to have some porridge, to fill herself up for the journey. "Oh!" Theresa shouted as she reached the threshold. "My hat!" She ran out as quickly as she'd come in. "Quiet," their father called after her in a hush. "You'll wake Herself." Their gran had said her good-byes the night before. She said she couldn't stand to see them go. Didn't want to hold the memory of it. Excerpted from Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.