Book Review: “Saints for All Occasions,” By J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel, Saints for All Occasions, is a familiar story. Two Irish sisters emigrate to America. Friends of the family take them in until they get jobs. The older sister eventually agrees to an arranged marriage; the younger sister goes astray. They drink too much. They hold secrets and grudges close to the vest. In the end, they gain strength and purpose from their frayed family bonds.

While this is an old story, Sullivan handles it with grace, insight, and an understated wisdom. In the tradition of writers like Alice McDermott, Sullivan writes about the Irish-Catholic experience with authenticity and uncanny perception. As someone who shares this heritage, I feel as though I know the characters in this novel.

The sweeping plot of this family saga centers on two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn, who were sent from Ireland to America in the late 1950s. Even though Nora didn’t love Charlie Rafferty, it was understood that she would marry him. Charlie had arrived there earlier while his older brother remained in the old country to run the family farm.

Living with a large Irish clan in Boston, Nora, 21, was serious and steadfast, while Theresa, 17, was gregarious and curious about this new world. When Theresa became pregnant, Nora stepped in and built a plan. Her intention was to protect her sister and preserve the family’s reputation. It was all a lie that took root, grew, and festered over the course of 50 years.

After an intense internal struggle, Theresa left her son behind and became a cloistered nun at a Vermont abbey. Nora and Charlie raised Patrick as their own. They had three children of their own: the over-achiever John, eager to please his parents; the tomboy Bridget, confused about her sexuality; and the youngest, Brian, isolated from his two older siblings, but close to Patrick, who took him under his wing.

The story moved back and forth in time between the late 1950s, the mid 1970s, and 2009. That’s when Patrick died after drinking and driving his car into a concrete wall beneath an overpass on Morrissey Boulevard.

Sullivan hints at what is to come in the first chapter. Driving home from the hospital after hearing the terrible news, Nora recalled a story her husband told about a man in Ireland called the bone setter. The man would come to a home and snap a child’s broken bone into place. “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 very next paragraph holds the key to this story: “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 one had done, each one putting Patrick even more out of joint. She had accepted this as the price of keeping him safe.”

Patrick’s death brings together a family riven by secrets and unexpressed anger. John is a successful political consultant whose niche is to elect Republican candidates in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Bridget runs an animal shelter in New York City. She and her partner, Natalie, have decided to have a baby, but Bridget can’t even bring herself to tell her mother she is gay, let alone about the decision to have a baby. Brian, a star athlete, has seen his baseball career stall after spending eight years in the Cleveland Indians minor league system. He lives in his old bedroom at his mom’s house and works in Patrick’s bar in Dorchester.

And then there is Theresa, who is now Mother Cecilia. Nora reluctantly invited her sister to the wake and the funeral, but she refused to put her up at her house. Before the wake and her reunion with Nora, Theresa reflected on her life. “Nothing had just happened to her. She made a choice and then she made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” Yet, she knew the most important choice was not made by her, but by her sister. “Nora never asked her if she could have Patrick, she just took him. But when this made her angry, she reminded herself that Nora had only done what she thought was best.”

While Theresa had long ago forgiven Nora, her older sister still harbored anger and resentment. When they met at the wake in front of Patrick’s body, Nora turned away from Theresa.

Later the family gathered at Nora’s house without Theresa, to consume trays of food and an abundance of alcohol. “There was something appealing about the perfect order of it all, the abundance. They would eat their grief before it swallowed them,” Sullivan wrote.

During this gathering it was Brian, the youngest, who grasped the dynamics of this dysfunctional family. “It didn’t bother him that his mother hadn’t told them about her sister. The family was built on things that went unsaid. There might be hints, whispers from another room that fell to silence when he entered. There were stories he simply accepted that he didn’t know the whole of, and others he didn’t even know he didn’t know the whole of.

“Who wanted to know everything about his own mother?”

Early the next morning, Bridget had a similar moment of truth. “Bridget thought of her family in terms of what they didn’t know about her. She had rarely wondered about the mysteries they harbored. How could you be this close, be a family, and yet be so unknown to one another?”

And, finally, in the early morning hours before Patrick’s funeral, Nora experienced her own epiphany. Wondering why she had bothered to call Theresa to tell her about Patrick’s death, Nora reflected, “…perhaps her better angels had somehow known she needed Theresa here. She had never believed that Theresa loved Patrick. Not the way she did. But standing over his body with Theresa, Nora felt it. Her sister’s grief, as palpable as her own.

And her thoughts eventually go to her own parents, long dead. “It wasn’t right that you could only understand your parents’ pain once you’d experienced the things they had, and by then, in her case anyway, they were gone.”

The ending was abrupt, but deeply satisfying. Sullivan has written a touching family saga that is sad, tragic, and ultimately a story of healing and forgiveness.

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