Thursday, April 16, 2020

J. Courtney Sullivan - Saints for All Occasions

Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America.
Nora is the responsible sister; she’s shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn’t sure that she loves. Theresa is gregarious; she is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls on Dudley Street. But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan—a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand.
Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children: John, a successful, if opportunistic, political consultant; Bridget, privately preparing to have a baby with her girlfriend; Brian, at loose ends after a failed baseball career; and Patrick, Nora’s favorite, the beautiful boy who gives her no end of heartache. Estranged from her sister and cut off from the world, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago.
A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together.

Comment: I got interested in this book at the end of 2017, probably because it was part of someone's best of list of that year. The book has languished in the pile for months now and this time I decided to finally start it, especially because it's another one of the buddy read choices with my friend H.

In this story we follow the lives of Nora and Theresa Flynn, two sisters from Ireland who, as well as many others, emigrated from Ireland to the US in the 50s.
Nora is the oldest but she much more timid than Theresa and when they arrive in America, their behavior follows their personalities and soon Theresa sees herself pregnant without being married, something taboo back then. This makes her think of her life, of the things she has always felt and, with the initiative of her sister too, she makes a decision.
The book spans decades of the characters' lives and the impact of every little thing they did continues to affect them until the present, where the two estranged sisters must accept and forgive each other's actions in the past...

This is the first book I try by this author so I wasn't expecting anything special about the style or the narrative but I ended up enjoying the author's "voice". This story shows us the lives of the two sisters and of everyone close to them, divided into past and present so that we can see the effect of the sisters' choices in their family members as well as in them. I think the way this is told conveys a very rich vibe in terms of how our feelings are looked upon by others, on how each action and word and expectation can be seen by someone else but what we think might not be what the other person thinks too. Still, i should say there are a few moments where the lack of empathy is very clear and I think I could have felt a lot more emotional than I was at some points.

The story develops at a very steady but rather slow pace. I didn't mind this at all because the characterization was brilliant. Although the characters don't do much on the page, their thoughts and impressions of the small things they do and the things they remember make for a very rich novel nevertheless. It felt like every information was necessary for us to understand why they behaved like that. 
The focus is on the two sisters and their immediate family so, of course, the majority of the details is related to them. I liked how much we could grasp through very little things.

I'd say the most negative thing in the book is how one or two details, regarding two specific situations, are a little too vague for me. A the novel develops we start to put the pieces together, some things are more obvious than others but it's still possible to have a general notion of what was going on. But there were two things that kept me doubting how they happened and why were they important in the big scheme that I feel were not successfully explained.
It doesn't mean there was this huge unknown left in the air but I would have liked some details to have been made a lot more clear.

Nora and Theresa are the main characters and I lied them for the most part. I could imagine how pride and fear of rejection and of failure would drive people to d certain things and how that changed their behaviors through life and in their choices. 
I suppose I can envy Theresa's decision in life because it does feel she escaped a lot of her fears at the same time she dedicated herself to something different.
Nora changed in a more obvious way but becoming the matriarch made her feel more confident, even in the decisions we might not agree with.
I wish their relationship had evolved in a different way but perhaps part of this book's lesson is precisely the fact we can't really control everything.

I liked this book a lot. I was very close to give it 5 stars but the end was very abrupt. I turned the page and nothing else was there, I went back to be certain and... i guess I'd have liked an epilogue with full closure.
Also, like I said, there were a couple of things there I wish could have been explained better too. It's not that the story is incomplete but I'd have liked to see why those things happened and what the characters would be like after some things had been decided. It feels like the author attempted to leave too much for the reader's interpretation.
Nevertheless, this book was captivating to read and I felt annoyed when I had to stop to do something else, so... positive anyway.
Grade: 8/10

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