The dynamics of Irish-American family life
SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS By J. Courtney Sullivan Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 352 pages
“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.