The Secret Lives of Families
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
J. Courtney Sullivan, known for her contemporary family dramas, explores the passage of time and social mores as two young Irish girls are jettisoned from their homeland to America – a place where their biggest opportunities and freedoms can only be constrained by the unspoken yet ardent code of acceptable behavior. Twenty-one year old Nora is keenly aware that as the oldest she is expected to be the guardian of her starry-eyed, semi-wild sister. Nora, who is leaving the land and home she loves and the only best friend she will ever have, is overwhelmed by the responsibilities expected of her: her long ago agreement (read family arrangement) to marry a man she doesn’t love – or even especially like; her honor-bound situation to become the matriarch of a new American family, far from the help and consolation of friends and the everyday objects and sights she has come to love; and her duties to find a suitable job for herself and her sister in a new land. With these thoughts pressing on her, and the soon-to-be marriage expected of her when she gets to America and meets-up with her affianced, Nora is bedridden across the Atlantic voyage whereas Theresa, always a favorite, always enamored of new possibilities and a misconception that at seventeen the world is wide open to her, becomes interested in romance and new friends.
When an unexpected pregnancy forces Nora to make a decision that will shatter her and her sister’s lives, the darkness that will both haunt and bind a family is begotten, a secret hid in plain sight is raised, and a breach between sisters settled into the backdrop debris of an evolving family story.
Fast-forward to adult children and now completely estranged sisters and you see Nora, the clucking mother hen of a large brood. The one who has always followed the rules and whose strict nature has her children terrified of admitting their differences – whether that be sexuality, politics, or simply family jealousy. When the death of Nora’s favorite son, the ever loved and extremely messed-up Patrick, opens the door to old secrets, Nora and her sister are left to repair their fractured connection and contemplate the sweeping decisions they made that while strictly adherent to the social rules of the time, effectively shattered and reshaped an entire family.
Essentially, Saints for All Occasions is about the ties that bind, the assigned responsibilities that supersede desire, and the secrets that are hidden. A family story, the narrative jumps between voices, from the judgmental perspective of a staunch Nora to the forgiving yet distant nature of her sister to the many children that are now grown and seeking their way in the world under the watchful eye of Nora: Patrick, who (now dead) is the testament that good decisions and good living aren’t necessary for a mother’s love; Bridget who is not ever ready to come-out to her mother, much less confess that she will soon be starting a family with her girlfriend; Brian, never having returned from a failed baseball career; and John, who has always lived in Patrick’s shadow and despite being the most successful of the children, feels the most unloved.
All these voices muddle together and give the sense of a family – the disconnected, dysfunctional aura of a family alongside all the inexplicable feelings and resentments that closeness and reliance breeds. Yet – it’s not a cohesive atmosphere for a story and many threads, especially the voices of the children, don’t go anywhere. Brian and his baseball career is merely periphery. Bridget’s coming-out-story is sidelined into never actually happening, her confession about the baby and her life’s decision ultimately curtailed despite all the buildup and page space. And John – well – he’s just annoying. A nonentity who is there to bemoan the unfairness of parental preference and love, which is rarely built on true merit. Yet, despite the validity of his observations and the crushing nature of not being the favorite, John just isn’t likeable – more a bitter voice that leads the plot and points out moral implications without ever involving us beyond a mere nod of, “yep, that’s the way things are somethings.”
The heart of the story then –the emotion– is between Nora and Theresa. We hear from both of them and even build sympathy for each. Yet, the conclusion where the sisters finally confront each other, and the poor life choices they both made, is abbreviated, Nora’s sudden change of heart is inexplicable. Within a few paragraphs, several hundred pages covering decades of silence and angst is wrapped up with an open ended “they probably lived happily ever after” without letting us even see the sister’s long overdue conversation. So much build-up and investment just jettisoned, as though the author herself isn’t sure how these separate people with their mutual pain and distrust could make amends either, much less what an actual conversation between the two of them would sound like.
Likewise, and here I’m going to shout “spoiler warning,” the fact that Nora prefers Patrick, who is in actuality Theresa’s abandoned child, to her own children seems contrived, especially since raising Patrick has cost Nora so much – her dreams and aspirations. Patrick’s mere presence forced her into the box of expectations which she was close to escaping. Resentment is more expected than devotion and her feelings towards her own children, cold and disappointed, leave readers curious as to the psychology behind all this. What it means, we don’t know, but it’s not ultimately believable as-is.
Saints for All Occasions, although not especially memorable, is a good beach-read sort of book. Sullivan has a zest for writing and her stories are usually pleasant to read, emotional enough to be lightly engaging, and well formulated to the degree that readers never feel the old “I want my time and money” back syndrome. It’s an enjoyable foray, an average sort of read, one that audiences can get into at the time but will inevitably forget.
– Frances Carden
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