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Saints for All Occasions by Courtney Sullivan

Flashes of other stories can be glimpsed in Courtney Sullivan’s novel about Irish immigrants to 1950s Boston, Saints for All Occasions – perhaps because the theme of young people giving it all up for less than a promise never loses its urgency, or because the act of migration is still, for one reason and another, headline news. Sullivan’s story concerns sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn, who are persuaded by Nora’s fiancé, Charlie Rafferty, to leave their shabby, hopeless village and follow him to the new world.

Predating this in the novel’s chronology is Nora in 2009, when we find her a mother of four adult children whose eldest, Patrick, has just been killed in a car accident that was probably precipitated by his drinking. This Irish Catholic family is populated by bar owners and patrons, and as Theresa learns on her arrival, Irishness is celebrated – and lubricated – in America as nowhere else; never before had she encountered a public holiday and a parade in honour of St Patrick’s Day.

Nora is Theresa’s elder but has lived in her sister’s shadow and “never much minded it there . . . if you were shy and quiet, mere proximity to someone so sparkling did something for you.” On coming to America, things happen which won’t be spoiled in this review but which cause the sisters’ lives to diverge into a largely unpunctuated estrangement. Nora finds a semblance of peace in her marriage to Charlie, the devoted husband she never wanted, and Theresa reinvents herself as Mother Cecilia, a senior member of a cloistered abbey in rural Vermont.

Here’s where the novel, Sullivan’s fourth, seems to hiccup. Its central figures are Nora and Theresa, and Sullivan made the logical choice, given the importance of Patrick’s funeral service to the latter-day plot, to introduce his younger siblings John, Bridget and Brian as adults.

We learn of John’s financial strain, which persists despite his lucrative career as a Republican political adviser because of his wife Julia’s extravagant taste in home furnishings; of Bridget’s relationship with Natalie, a nonheteronormative union that Bridget never succeeds in discussing with her Catholic mother (Nora “always acted like an emotion expressed was the most dangerous thing in the world”); and of Brian’s near-miss of a career in major-league baseball.

Sullivan has a way with character development – “John had a gift for modulating his personality to suit whomever he was speaking to” – and the arcs she forms are all but faultless. Likewise, her prose is as fine has you could hope, but the novel itself has an odd hollowness; none of the characters has quite enough room to breathe, so it’s not clear to whom the story ultimately belongs.

The figure upon whom everything pivots, Patrick, is absent and voiceless, which perhaps is the point – but for a novel about a successful escape from Irish small-mindedness, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proffers a more penetrating, focused worldview and a rib-cracking emotional embrace.

Previously reviewed on

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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