Saints for All Occasions, J. Courtney Sullivan, author, Susan Denaker, narrator
When the story begins, a phone rings in the middle of the night and a lone sleeping woman, Nora Rafferty, is told that there has been an accident.
Then the story moves to the mid 1950’s. Nora Flynn and her sister Theresa Flynn are preparing to travel to America. Nora is seven years older than Theresa and is going to be married to the man she has been betrothed to for years, Charlie Rafferty, when they arrive in Boston. Although she has had second thoughts, she believes she has no other real alternative. They were supposed to be married in Ireland in County Claire, uniting their properties and managing their farms. It felt more like a business arrangement to her than a marriage based on passionate love, but it suited them both. When Charlie’s dad decided to give the farm to his older son, Charlie was sent to New York to stay with relatives. He was to make his fortune there. When he had enough money saved, he sent for Nora who would not leave Ireland without her sister. Nora was very reserved, Theresa was the opposite, fun loving and outgoing. While Nora remained in the cabin for most of the voyage, Theresa made friends and had a wonderful time.
Both women got jobs and lived in a boarding house, sharing a room. Nora puts off her wedding, without any real explanation, until Theresa finds herself in a compromising situation. For Theresa, America is a playground. She is naïve and having so much fun, until she gets mixed up with a man and becomes pregnant. She is sent to a convent until the baby’s birth. Nora suddenly decides to marry Charlie immediately and begins to pretend she is pregnant. She has decided she will raise Theresa’s baby so that her sister will not have to give him up entirely. The baby will not be given up for adoption. His name will be Patrick, the name chosen by Theresa. This is what was done back in that day when a young unmarried female found herself pregnant. It was hidden and considered shameful. That decision to sacrifice her life is what drives the story forward. We watch and learn how this decision affects Theresa, Patrick, Nora and her future family as they go forward into the future.
Theresa’s child, Patrick, is a difficult young boy. Nora, exhausted, grows resentful. Soon, angry words are exchanged and Theresa decides to run away, promising to one day return. She asks Nora to love Patrick until that time. She reunites with a friend she met on the boat over and soon becomes a teacher, fulfilling Nora’s dream for her. Later, she becomes a cloistered nun.
Nora loses contact with her for years, and she grows angrier. She has somewhat of a bitter nature. Eventually, when there is contact, she refuses to allow her sister to have anything to do with her son or with the rest of her family after a brief conversation. She never even tells her other children that she has a sister. Patrick does not know that Theresa is his mother. It is not hard to keep up this façade as decades pass, because Theresa, now known as Mother Cecilia, does not leave the convent. Secrets proliferate; lies become what is interpreted as the truth.
The growing pains of the Rafferty family are dissected. The bumps in their relationships are explored. I viewed Nora as a woman with two sides, either cruel or kind. She was strict and very bound to old ways and the rules she had always lived by. While Theresa finds peace, Nora holds onto grudges and wallows in her resentment. Family dynamics are splayed to be viewed and judged by the reader.
My own feelings for Nora were somewhat schizophrenic, vacillating from respect to disgust. Although she often did what she thought was best, she was often close minded, cruel and resentful. It sometimes outweighed the moments when she opened up her heart. She was always protecting herself and her family from what others might think. She was very controlled. Her character and behavior was typical of the Irish immigrant of that time period, and the narrator portrayed her perfectly as far as personality and accent, placing her in the time period appropriately. The author described her well and made the atmosphere of the times and the environment in Boston real. She brought Nora’s and Theresa’s feelings, their dreams and disappointments, to the table, placing them in the mindset of that 50’s decade.
It was interesting, however, to watch each of the women grow, one becoming more socially active after being a shy young woman and one who was never shy becoming retiring and choosing to live in a silent world; one who loved fashion who retreated inside a habit and one who never gave fashion a second thought breaking out of that mold and even running social events.
Because it takes place from the mid 1950’s to around the end of the first decade of the 21st century, social mores, women’s rights, alcoholism, scandals of the church and improper behavior of the priests and nuns, abortion and birth control were sprinkled and explored throughout the narrative. The discussion of religion was approached very openly and honestly as was the discussion of alternate choices of love interests.
The narrator represented each of the characters well, capturing individual personalities and accents so that each was recognized as a part of a particular background. I enjoyed listening to her Irish brogue which was charming and authentic sounding to my ear. She made the story come alive on every page so that I witnessed the hardship, the sadness, the joy and the fears of Nora and her sister Theresa.
I had some difficulty following the thread when the story moved back and forth in time trying to explain certain events more fully, and at those times, there was some repetition, as well. The politics of the day was inserted through the use of the church and its stand on women, abortion, sex and marriage, but was handled without prejudice. I enjoyed the dialogue between the characters. It felt as if they were real as they struggled to communicate with each other and live in the more modern world. The reader witnesses their response to both failure and success.
The author analyzed relationships, family interactions, and changing mores and technology over the decades. She showed how choices alter our lives, often behind the scenes without our knowledge; some can make peace and some can never find it, instead choosing to make everyday a war zone.
In the end, I thought it was interesting that Theresa had a child out of wedlock, completely unplanned; unmarried, and is shamed by everyone who knows. Yet, in the end, Brigitte, Nora’s daughter, involved in a lesbian relationship, is not married and is carefully planning her own pregnancy using a sperm donor, without shame. Our values have traveled in a full circle. I wondered, also, how much did Theresa or Nora really adjust and change to accommodate the changing world? Did both just march in place?