A New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017
Washington Post 10 Best Books of 2017
A Harper's Bazaar Best Book of 2017
"This year’s best book about family." —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
A sweeping, unforgettable novel from The New York Times best-selling author of Maine, about the hope, sacrifice, and love between two sisters and the secret that drives them apart.
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, quietly 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, 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.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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In the car on the way to the hospital, Nora remembered how, when Patrick was small, she would wake up suddenly, gripped by some terrible fear—that he had stopped breathing, or spiked a deadly fever. That he had been taken from her.
She had to see him to be sure. They lived then on the top floor of the three-decker on Crescent Avenue. She would practically sleepwalk through the kitchen and past Bridget’s door, and then down the hall to the boys’ room, her nightgown skimming the cold hardwood, the muffled sound of Mr. Sheehan’s radio murmuring up from downstairs.
The fear returned the summer Patrick was sixteen, when they moved to the big house in Hull. Nora would awaken, heart pounding, thinking of him, and of her sister, images past and present wound up in one another. She worried about the crowd he ran with, about his anger and his moods, about things he had done that could never be undone.
She met her worries in the same old way. Whatever the hour, she would rise to her feet and climb the attic stairs to Patrick’s bedroom, so that she might lay eyes on him. This was a bargain she struck, a ritual to guarantee safety. Nothing truly bad could happen if she was expecting it.
Over the years, there were times when one of her other three consumed her thoughts. As they got older, Nora knew them better. That was something no one ever told you. That you would have to get to know your own children. John wanted too much to please her. Bridget was a hopeless tomboy. They had carried these traits along with them into adulthood. When Brian, her baby, moved away, Nora worried. She worried ever more so when he moved back in.
But it was Patrick who weighed most on her mind. He was fifty now. For the past several months, the old fear had returned. Ever since John kicked things up again. Things she had long considered safely in the past. Unable to check on Patrick on those nights when the feeling arose, Nora would switch on the lamp and shuffle through her prayer cards until she came to Saint Monica, patron saint of mothers with difficult children. She slept with the card faceup on Charlie’s empty pillow.
Tonight, for once, she hadn’t been thinking of Patrick. Of all things, she was thinking about the boiler down cellar. It had been clanging since just after supper. Adjusting the temperature didn’t help. Nora thought she might have to bleed the pipes. As a last resort, she tried saying a rosary to make it stop. When this seemed to do the trick, she went to bed with a fat grin on her face, thus assured of her own powers.
She was awakened not long after by the ringing of the telephone, a stranger’s voice saying there had been an accident, she should come right away. By the time she reached the emergency room, pink flannel pajamas under her winter coat, Patrick was already gone.
The ambulance had taken him to the Carney.
It took Nora forty-five minutes to get from home to the old neighborhood.
They were waiting for her by the door: a doctor and a nurse and a priest about her age. The presence of the priest made it clear. She thought of how they left Dorchester all those years ago for Patrick’s sake, but as soon as he was old enough he came right back. This would be where his life had started, and where it came to an end.
They took her to a windowless office. She wanted to tell them she wouldn’t go in. But she followed right along and sat down. The doctor looked terribly young for such a job, but then a lot of people were starting to look terribly young to her. He wanted Nora to know that they had tried to revive her son for close to an hour. They had done all they could. He explained in calm detail that Patrick had been drinking. That he lost control of the car and slammed into a concrete wall beneath an overpass on Morrissey Boulevard. His chest struck the steering column. His lungs bled out.
“It could have been worse,” the doctor said. “If he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, he would have been ejected from the car.”
How could it be any worse than death, she wondered, and yet she clung to this detail. Patrick had worn his seatbelt. He wasn’t trying to die.
Nora wanted to ask the priest if he thought all her fears had pointed to this moment. Or if they had been the thing to stave it off for so long. She felt that she should confess something. Her guilt. She knew they would think she was crazy if she said any of it out loud. She sat there with her lips pressed together, holding her pocketbook tight to her chest like it was a fidgety child.
After the signing of papers, the nurse said, “We’ll give you a minute with him, if you like.”
She led Nora to a room down the hall and closed the door.
Patrick was lying on a gurney, a white blanket covering his body, a breathing tube protruding from his mouth. Someone had closed his eyes.
From the hall and the rooms all around came the beeping of machines, the scurry of feet, and low voices. A burst of laughter from the nurses’ station. But in this room, everything was impossibly settled, final. Still.
Nora tried to recall what the doctor had said. It seemed that if she could just piece it together, figure out what was to blame, she might still have him back.
She felt overcome with anger toward John. She returned to that moment last May, when he first asked if she remembered the McClain family from Savin Hill. Their oldest son had approached John to run his campaign for state senate.
“They weren’t very nice people,” she said. “I don’t think you should do it.”
What she meant was Don’t do it. But John went right ahead. It had led to that terrible fight at Maeve’s confirmation. Patrick and John hadn’t spoken since. Patrick hadn’t been himself.
Nora had seen another article in the paper just yesterday, a slight agitation taking root in her chest, as it did whenever she saw Rory McClain’s name in print.
There was a photograph of Rory looking every bit the politician, that face so familiar to her, all black hair and toothy smile. His wife stood by his side, and three teenage boys, lined up according to height. Nora wondered if beneath the collared shirts and school picture day haircuts they were as wicked as their father and grandfather had once been. It seemed to her that a duplicitous nature must run in a family, like twins or weak knees.
She hadn’t read the article. Though she knew John would call to make sure she had seen it, Nora turned the page.
She took in a deep breath now and told herself to put these thoughts aside. There wasn’t much time left.
Patrick had had a horrible mustache for the last two years, despite her begging him to shave it off. She let her hand hover in the air just above it, so as to hide the proof, and then she looked at him. She looked and looked. He had always been handsome. The most beautiful of all her children.
After a while, the nurse knocked twice, then opened the door.
“It’s time, I’m afraid,” she said.
Nora pulled a small plastic hairbrush from her purse and smoothed his black curls. She checked his pulse, in case. She felt as if a swarm of bees were darting around inside her, but she managed to let Patrick go, as she had on other occasions when it felt impossible. When he was five and frightened about the first day of kindergarten, she slipped a seashell into his pocket as the yellow school bus came into view. To get you through, she said.
In the fluorescent-lit hallway, the priest placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re in better shape than most, Mrs. Rafferty,” he said. “You’re a tough cookie, I can tell. No tears.”
Nora didn’t say anything. She had never been able to cry in front of other people. And anyway, tears never came right away at a moment like this. Not when her mother died when she was a child, and not when her husband died five years ago, and not when her sister went away. Which was not a death, but something close to it.
“Where in Ireland are you from?” he asked, and when she stared back blankly, he said, “Your accent.”
“County Clare,” she said.
“Ahh. My mother came from County Mayo.” The priest paused. “He’s in a better place.”
Why did they send the clergy at times like this? By design, they could never understand. Her sister had been just the same. Nora pictured her, in full black habit—did they even wear those anymore? She would wake up this morning at that tranquil country abbey, free from all attachment, free from heartache, even though she had been the one to set the thing in motion.
All the way home, unable to think of how she would tell the children, Nora thought of her sister. Her rage was like another person sitting beside her in the car.
When the children were young, Charlie was always telling stories about home. The one they liked best was about the Bone Setter.
“Did I ever tell you who came when you broke a bone in Miltown Malbay?” he would ask.
They would shake their heads, even though they’d heard it before.
“The Bone Setter!” he’d cry, clasping the closest child in his arms, the child squealing in delight.
“You didn’t go to the doctor unless you were dying,” he said. “No, if you broke something, like I did—my ankle—this fine man would come to your bedroom and snap you right back into place with his hands, as good as new.” Charlie made a popping sound with his tongue. “No drugs. Didn’t need them.”
The children went green when he told it. But then they begged him to tell it again.
As usual when he spoke of home, Charlie left out the worst bits. The man had set his ankle slightly off. It led the rest of his body to be out of balance so that eventually, his knees bothered him, and later, his back.
The lies they had told were like this. The original, her sister’s doing. All those that followed, an attempt on Nora’s part to try to preserve what the first lie had done, each one putting Patrick ever more out of joint. She had accepted it as the price of keeping him safe.
John always complained that Nora favored Patrick. Bridget said that until she was five years old, she thought his name was My Patrick, since that’s all Nora ever called him. She had thought that someday they would understand, they would know the whole story, though she could not imagine telling it. Patrick had asked, but she could never bring herself to answer.
She hadn’t even told them that she had a sister.
Her mind wandered again to the abbey. Those women outside the world, capable of casting off everything, even their own names. Nora had realized long ago that the walls the nuns used to keep others out could just as easily wall a person in, imprison her with her thoughts. Let her sit with this, then. The weight of it. It wasn’t right that Nora should have to carry it on her own.
As soon as she reached the house, she went to the junk drawer and found her old address book. She called the abbey for the first time in more than thirty years. She told the young one who answered that her name was Nora Rafferty and she needed Mother Cecilia Flynn to know that her son Patrick had died late last night, in a car crash, alone.
Outside, she could hear the first of the commuters driving down the hill, headed for the highway that would take them to the city, or else to the ferry, where they’d drink a cup of coffee as the boat cut a course across the darkened harbor.
Nora took a notepad from the counter and made a list. She brewed a pot of tea in case company should arrive sooner than expected. She sat down and wept, her elbows on the table, her face cupped in the cool palms of her hands.
Their father hired a hackney to drive them as far as Ennistymon. From there, a bus would carry them the rest of the way to Cobh.
At six in the morning, he stood smoking by the kitchen window, tapping his foot, waiting for Cedric McGann’s black Ford to come chugging up the road.
Nora hadn’t slept. While the house was silent, by the light of an oil lamp, she made certain they had everything they needed. She checked three times to be sure. Now, their suitcases by the door, she sat at the table, hoping he might tell her not to go. But her father wouldn’t look at her.
“Are you all right?” she managed to ask.
“Right as the mail,” he said.
An hour ago, she had fixed him a boiled egg. It was still on the plate, untouched.
In one of his letters, Charlie said his father’s cousin in Boston was a marvelous cook, that Nora had never seen the likes of her food. Nora had told her father that the woman was strict so he wouldn’t worry, but in fact Charlie reported that she barely noticed the family members who came to stay. Girls lived on the second floor, and boys on the third, and as long as you minded your manners, Mrs. Quinlan didn’t bother you.
Charlie said they wouldn’t live in her house for long. Once they were married, they would get their own apartment. What about Theresa? she asked him when she wrote. She can come with us if you like, he replied. Or she can stay on at Quinlans’. We won’t be going far.
Nora watched her father at the window. She felt like there had been a death, that mix of sorrow and anticipation that arose to fill the space when someone vanished.
Her sister came bounding into the room, giddy, wearing her nicest dress.
Nora was about to tell her to have some porridge, to fill herself up for the journey.
“Oh!” Theresa shouted as she reached the threshold. “My hat!”
She ran out as quickly as she’d come in.
“Quiet,” their father called after her in a hush. “You’ll wake Herself.”
Their gran had said her good-byes the night before. She said she couldn’t stand to see them go. Didn’t want to hold the memory of it.
Excerpted from "Saints for All Occasions"
Copyright © 2018 J. Courtney Sullivan.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Saints for All Occasions, J. Courtney Sullivan’s spellbinding novel about a New England family whose roots in Ireland are shaken, and reaffirmed, when the sudden death of a beloved son and brother forces them to confront long-held secrets they’ve kept from each another, and from themselves.
1. Describe the differences between Nora and Theresa when they were girls. Did you find it surprising how their paths diverged as they grew older?
2. Discuss Nora’s sense of responsibility and obligation to her family, including as the oldest sibling and following her mother’s death. How does this role, which she adopts from a young age, influence her understanding of motherhood throughout her life?
3. Although Patrick is not alive in the present-day sections of the novel (2009), how does the author give us a full portrait of his character? What do others’ opinions and memories of him help us glean about his personality and behaviors that a more direct interaction with him in the narrative wouldn’t provide?
4. How do all of Nora’s children complement one another, even as we see their vastly disparate feelings toward Patrick? What do their reactions Even though a death is at the center of the novel’s plot, did you find that death was a central concern of the novel’s themes? Either way, what does the cascade of events following a death like Patrick’s suggest about how we might value our time with loved ones and the legacy that we leave them with when we’re gone?
5. Even though a death is at the center of the novel’s plot, did you find that death was a central concern of the novel’s themes? Either way, what does the cascade of events following a death like Patrick’s suggest about how we might value our time with loved ones and the legacy that we leave them with when we’re gone?
6. Discuss the portrayal of romantic love in the novel: between Nora and Charlie, Bridget and Natalie, John and Julia, and other couples. How is it prioritized differently among them, and what are the particular ways that affection and passion manifest themselves between couples?
7. How does Mother Cecilia’s experience in the abbey compare with your expectations of what religious life is like? Were you surprised by any of the stances she took toward the church, other nuns and priests, and changes in culture during the novel’s time period of the late 1950s through 2009?
8. What seem to be the biggest differences between the girls’ lives in Ireland and their lives in the United States? Did you feel that either of them regretted the move at any given point, and why?
9. Describe the shifting gender dynamics over the course of the novel’s time line. In the roughly fifty years that pass, what changes about men’s and women’s roles and what doesn’t, including to the roles influenced by the family’s deep, traditional Irish roots?
10. How do Nora and Theresa respond differently to the task of motherhood that falls upon them, biologically or otherwise? In what ways are they both mothers to Patrick and the other people in their lives? How does the novel upend the traditional definition of motherhood, which Nora describes as “a physical act as much as an emotional one. It took every part of you” (page 229)?
11. How did the structure of the novel influence your understanding of and sympathy toward the characters as the narrative moved back and forth in time? What was the benefit of learning about Patrick, in particular, in this way—seeing him first in a posthumous light and then more closely as he grew up? And how did the perspective on the family that you had as a reader differ from what the characters could know about themselves and one another in real time?
12. What were common threads among the secrets the characters kept from one another? Why do you think some characters, more than others, were more willing to be complicit in keeping those secrets, especially when it came to Patrick?
13. How do you think the circumstances of Patrick’s birth affected his sense of belonging, even if only implicitly? What other characters struggled to feel like they belonged, and how did they deal with those feelings?
14. Early in the novel, Theresa is described as “simply the most. The most brave and beautiful and brash and clever” (page 15). How does this quality help her stay resilient through the many obstacles in her life? How do other characters, including Nora, prove to be resilient in their own ways, and which characters are most successful?
15. What did you make of the end of the novel? Do you think that the sisters will be able to truly forgive each other, or is their past too much to overcome?
16. Consider your own family relationships and customs, including religious beliefs and traditions. Were there parts of the Raffertys’ rituals or conflicts among one another that seemed familiar to you, even if they weren’t specific to being Irish and/or Catholic?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story and characters lack depth, the story really just skimmed along, it is a quick summer beach read.
I loved this story, being in a Catholic family, I could relate, I loved the ending too!
In many ways very typical of other novels I’ve read about Irish families. Well written and engaging