The dy­nam­ics of Ir­ish-Amer­i­can fam­ily life

SAINTS FOR ALL OC­CA­SIONS By J. Court­ney Sul­li­van Al­fred A. Knopf, $26.95, 352 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Claire Ho­p­ley Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and edi­tor in Amherst, Mass.

“Saints for All Oc­ca­sions tells the sto­ries of the Flynn sis­ters: Nora and Theresa, who leave their home in Ire­land to set­tle in Bos­ton in 1958. Theresa is the ad­ven­tur­ous one; Nora is the older, shy, re­spon­si­ble one. She’s en­gaged to Char­lie Raf­ferty, who is al­ready in Bos­ton. The mar­riage had been planned when it seemed Char­lie would in­herit the next-door farm. Join­ing land from the two farms meant some­thing to both Nora and Char­lie, but when the Raf­ferty farm goes to his brother and Char­lie de­camps to Bos­ton, Nora has no wish to join him.

“Nora didn’t fancy him par­tic­u­larly. Char­lie was silly . . . . He still told hor­ri­ble jokes and pulled pranks on his friends. He laughed too loud.” His let­ters from Bos­ton don’t change her mind. He had writ­ten, “You could make your­self over in Amer­ica, leave be­hind all you didn’t like, it was clear to Nora that she was stuck with her­self.”

She is also stuck with Theresa, the sis­ter whom she has brought up since their mother died, and to whom she is de­voted. Theresa is bright. Nora’s one hope of Amer­ica is that it will give her the chance to be­come a teacher. Theresa is also pretty and out­go­ing, and in Bos­ton she gets preg­nant. After the birth, she leaves for New York, and even­tu­ally for Ver­mont, where she be­comes a nun in a clois­tered com­mu­nity.

But though Theresa lives apart from the world, she has a rich men­tal and so­cial life. As for Nora, be­ing stuck with her­self means that she plays out the role al­ways al­lo­cated to her. She mar­ries Char­lie — who is far from be­ing a bad man or a bad hus­band. He shares Nora’s prac­ti­cal­ity, so they raise four chil­dren, and Nora be­comes the or­ga­niz­ing ma­tri­arch of a fam­ily that in­cludes the mul­ti­tude of Raf­ferty cousins liv­ing in Bos­ton.

“Saints for All Oc­ca­sions” opens in 2009 with Nora in a taxi go­ing to the hos­pi­tal to iden­tify the body of Patrick — the el­dest of her fam­ily. He’s died in a one-car ac­ci­dent. It soon moves back to 1957-1958, when Nora’s fa­ther packs her and Theresa into the car that will take them on the first leg of their jour­ney to Amer­ica.

The rest of the novel moves smoothly back and forth from the days when Nora and her grown chil­dren are pre­par­ing for Patrick’s wake and fu­neral back to ear­lier times: her arrival in Bos­ton, Patrick’s birth, the fam­ily’s move from Bos­ton to the sea­side town of Hull, Theresa’s life in New York, her vis­its to the Ver­mont con­vent, and her de­ci­sion to com­mit her­self to a life of re­li­gion.

J. Court­ney Sul­li­van han­dles these time shifts deftly, chart­ing the fam­ily his­tory over half a cen­tury, and show­ing how its mem­bers han­dle the ex­i­gen­cies of their lives and deal with Nora’s no-go ar­eas.

Her chil­dren Bridget and John strug­gle with this, but it doesn’t bother her youngest Brian. He un­der­stands that “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 did didn’t know the whole of, and oth­ers he didn’t even know he didn’t know the whole of.”

The keen sense of the dy­nam­ics of fam­ily life — es­pe­cially Ir­ish-Amer­i­can fam­ily life — is one of the most re­ward­ing as­pects of “Saints for All Oc­ca­sions.” It is rooted in a sim­i­larly acute knowl­edge about the places they in­habit: about the Dorch­ester area of Bos­ton, about the bar that Patrick even­tu­ally owns, about the town of Hull and the mean­ing of the move there.

The au­thor could have learned much of this from grow­ing up in an Ir­ish-Catholic fam­ily in Bos­ton. Yet equally pow­er­ful are her imag­i­na­tive recre­ations of life in Ire­land in the 1950s, the ex­pe­ri­ence of cross­ing the At­lantic in a tiny cabin, and most har­row­ing of all, what it was like to give birth in St. Mary’s, a home for un­mar­ried moth­ers.

While the evo­ca­tions of these venues and the char­ac­ters’ lives in them spring off the page, bright and po­tent, the Ver­mont scenes fall flat. The gar­dens and land­scape around the con­vent lack life, and the re­wards and dif­fi­cul­ties of life as a nun are sketched rather than in­ter­ro­gated. As a re­sult, Theresa, al­ways a sec­ondary fo­cus and al­ways drawn more ide­al­is­ti­cally, gets bleached out.

Ad­mir­ers of J. Court­ney Sul­li­van’s ear­lier nov­els, es­pe­cially the 2011 best seller “Maine,” will likely also love “Saints for All Oc­ca­sions.” New­com­ers to her work will also ap­pre­ci­ate her con­trol of the fam­ily saga genre, and her grasp of fam­ily dy­nam­ics. This is a novel to read on a va­ca­tion when there is time to pon­der why Nora and Theresa be­have as they do.

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