“Saints for All Occasions,” the new novel by J. Courtney Sullivan, is so unassuming that its artistry looks practically invisible. In fact, from the outside, nothing about this story seems noteworthy: Irish Catholics settle in Boston; they drink too much; they struggle with the church; they gather for a loved one’s wake.
That sounds as fresh as a pint of last week’s Guinness.
Which makes this quiet masterpiece all the more impressive. In a simple style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this novel is its elegant manipulation of time. In the present, the story takes place over just a few days — the period between when 50-year-old Patrick Rafferty loses control of his car and when he’s laid out at his funeral.
But within those hours, Sullivan spins the captivating history of his mother, Nora, reaching all the way back to a little Irish village in the late 1950s. This is a place where electricity is a luxury and some girls are still subjected to arranged marriages. There we see nervous Nora preparing to leave everything and everyone she knows to join her fiance, Charlie, in the United States. “Charlie had said you could make yourself over in America, leave behind all that you didn’t like,” Sullivan writes. “Yet here she was, not yet to the front gate, and already it was clear that Nora was stuck with herself.”
As Sullivan shows, though, Nora has no clear idea who she really is or what she’ll be stuck with. Like any well-organized life, hers is one of carefully considered plans that will soon be shredded. She will never return to live in Ireland, despite her fiance’s promise. She will not have the kinds of children she imagined. In this ingeniously plotted novel, Nora will be swept along a trajectory she can rarely perceive and only barely control.
And yet “Saints for All Occasions” is primarily the story of one woman’s indefatigable efforts to control everything about those she loves — including, most notably, their pasts and their identities. As one of Nora’s adult children notes, “His mother put no premium on the truth.” Instead, her efforts are directed entirely at preserving her denials: Her eldest son does not have a drinking problem. Her daughter is not a lesbian. Her sister does not exist.
That final illusion is the spike around which the entire novel is wound. We know of Nora’s sister, Theresa, from the first chapter — she’s spent most of her life as a cloistered nun in Vermont. But how these two siblings fell out and what continues to bind them over the decades are the emotional mysteries that Sullivan tenderly explores. It’s a story that draws us deep into the essential qualities of motherhood and the compensations of faith.
“This family has a way of forgetting what it doesn’t want to know,” Sullivan writes, and Nora depends desperately on that common predilection. “She wondered how much longer she could keep up the lie, even as she understood that she had committed herself to it for life.” The most fascinating element of the story is watching a daring act of deception coalesce into the solid-seeming shape of history.
As Nora’s family grows, the novel flows out into the varied lives of her children over decades of tumultuous life in and around Boston, where Sullivan herself grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Although the chapters are precisely knit together to maintain or expose old secrets, many of them are self-contained studies of character or social change. We watch neighborhoods shift with new waves of immigrants and towns turn on themselves over school busing. We follow Nora’s children as they alternately embrace or break away from her influence — settling in a Dorchester pub or grasping for WASPy urbanity that seems entirely alien to her.
Meanwhile, the convent in Vermont offers a parallel story in an entirely different register. If Nora’s life is one of constant change and reaction, Theresa’s is one of enforced stability and contemplation. And yet Sullivan proves to be just as deft and insightful about the complementary challenges that a monastic family faces. These alternating chapters about Theresa feel refreshingly anachronistic, thoroughly at odds with our modern-day requirement that religious characters in literary fiction suffer either madness or disillusionment. Without a breath of sentimentality, Sullivan dares to imagine the entwined trials and riches to be found in cloistered devotion.
Indeed, the ferocious discipline of these two sisters is matched only by the author’s. Sullivan never tells too much; she never draws attention to her cleverness; she never succumbs to the temptation of offering us wisdom. She trusts, instead, in the holy power of a humane story told in one lucid sentence after another.
I read parts of “Saints for All Occasions” to my wife over spring break, and for a week afterward, she kept asking: “What happened to Nora’s sister? How did her son die? Was her daughter able to adopt a child?”
I don’t blame her. To read this engrossing novel is to become invested in these “entirely resilient and impossibly fragile” people. They aren’t really saints, of course, at least no more than the rest of us. But that’s the point.
Ron Charles is editor of Book World and host of the Totally Hip Video Book Review.
On May 20 at 1:15 p.m., J. Courtney Sullivan will be at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, at Gaithersburg City Hall, 31 South Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, MD 20877.
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf. 335 pp. $26.95