Saints for All Occasions: J. Courtney Sullivan

★★★★

When sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn make the journey to America in 1957, they are agog for a new world of opportunity. Nora, plain and sensible at twenty-one, dreams of finding something to excite her: an alternative to the planned marriage to the unexciting cousin who awaits her in Boston. For Theresa, in her late teens, life is full of sparkle and fun, crammed with new friends and boyfriends and a liberty she could never have known in their native Ireland. Fifty years later, in 2009, a family tragedy threatens to unearth a secret that has estranged the two sisters, and moulded both their lives into shapes they could never have imagined when arriving on the ship half a century before.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. Nora has had to grow up too soon, to replace the mother who died too young, while Theresa has the breezy exuberance of the baby of the family: indulged, spoiled, pretty and far too naive for her own good. On arrival in Boston’s Dorchester, the girls are taken in by the extended family of Nora’s fiance Charlie. With lodgings, jobs, cousins and friends offered to them on a plate, they have a ready-made life they can simply slip into if they choose. Yet neither of them is quite ready to sink into the comfortable oblivion of life among the Raffertys. Theresa, the bright one, the academic one, dreams of getting a teaching qualification; Nora, troubled by her indifference towards Charlie, wonders if she would be happier with another man.

But life overtakes the sisters in the form of a shocking development, which both binds them together and threatens to drive a wedge between them. As Nora sacrifices herself in honour of doing the right thing, Theresa struggles to find her place in the new order and eventually makes an extraordinary decision. The book is centred on these questions of responsibility: those who accept their duty, and those who rebel against it. We see it in Nora’s generation, in the relationship between the sisters – and in the generation of Nora’s children, with John playing the role of the dutiful, by-the-book son, and Patrick taking on the part of scapegrace. It acknowledges the injustice of the world, in that the reprobates are so often loved more than the dutiful, but questions whether happiness is ultimately to be found in toeing the line or straying beyond it.

And of course, the book is about family. Sullivan conjures up the lively, sprawling, noisy, argumentative, stifling quality of a large Irish family on the East Coast, with the reams of cousins and the never-ending series of christenings, weddings and funerals: the wakes with the old songs and the family legends told and retold. And yet she also captures the way that such family life has changed between the 1950s and the present day: the irony that, as first-generation immigrants become second-generation, they cling ever more fiercely to their ‘Irishness’; and the loosening ties that allow the more ambitious members of the family to head off to conventional, all-American lives. Nora’s own life of self-sacrifice gives way to the lives of her children, robustly making their own ways in a world which is increasingly more open than any Nora ever knew.

In fact, one sentence summed up the entire theme for me: ‘The moment a woman was born determined so much of who she was allowed to become‘. So much of the tragedy of this book could have been averted, were it to have taken place a few decades later. But that’s the point. Sullivan deftly captures a world on the brink, shared between two generations who simply can’t understand one another: the older generation, raised on poverty that’s unimaginable to their children, and the younger generation, embracing the world around them, but starting to face their own culture clashes with their children. The power of this story is often in what lies between the lines, in those grey areas where love shades into the more secret, more private emotions that we never dare admit to: envy, resentment and hate colouring the ties of this complicated, vibrant clan.

A moving story of family, faith, duty and responsibility, of mothers and sons, and of love in all its forms, this offers a vivid picture of Irish life in America in the latter part of the 20th century – but also a thoughtful, intimate examination of its characters’ hearts. Recommended for those looking for an absorbing, poignant summer drama.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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