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.