“Saints For All Occasions,” by J. Courtney Sullivan, is her best book yet. You may remember “Maine” a few years back. I loved it.
In 1959, two sisters leave their village in Ireland for a better life here in America. Nora, the shy one, is older and tries to look after Theresa, the younger one. Nora’s engaged to marry Charlie but she’s really not sure she loves him. He’s working in Boston. Theresa is the wild child. She’s seventeen and full of herself.
When Theresa gets herself in trouble Nora feels responsible. And thus begins a series of secrets and hate-filled decisions that last a lifetime.
Fifty years later Theresa is a cloistered nun while Nora has a large family and is living with an even larger secret.
Where did the idea for her novel come? Sullivan visited Miltown Malbay, Ireland, the village where her great-grandmother lived until at the age of 17 she came alone to Boston to live. She spoke to a childhood friend who told her: “Every Irish Catholic family has a relative who is never mentioned, who half the family doesn’t know exists until one day he shows up at a wake.”
Sullivan, a lapsed Catholic, admits to a fascination with nuns. So when she had the opportunity to spend time at an abbey, she did.
Sullivan says: “Four years ago, my aunt introduced me to a family friend I’d never heard of—Mother Lucia, a cloistered nun who joined an abbey in Connecticut before I was born. I’ve met many nuns in my life, the type who work in schools or hospitals. But I’d never met a contemplative before. From the first time we spoke, I adored Mother Lucia. I found out that she was a lover of Shakespeare with a Ph.D. in English from Yale, who had first come to the abbey as a hippie in the late ’60s, seeking peace, community, social justice.
I also learned that in the last few years, for the first time, cloistered nuns have been allowed to leave the convent for a short period if there’s a family need. With that, a story was born, made up of all the bits and pieces I’d been collecting for a decade. It’s a story about a cloistered nun coming home to her family for the first time in fifty years. She is coming home for a wake. Half the family doesn’t know she exists. My fictional nun, whose name is Mother Cecilia, and her sister Nora travel from Miltown Malbay, Ireland to Boston as teenagers in 1958. “
Sullivan wears her heart on her sleeve with this novel. It’s filled with moral complexity. It takes on society and religion and the Irish- American experience. When Sullivan met with Mother Lucia she learned in intimate detail what happens when someone is afraid to tell the truth. She stayed overnight at the abbey and worked with the nuns on the farm. She learned that homes for unwed mothers were quite common between WW11 and the legalization of the pill.
Sullivan is not afraid to tackle social issues. She deals with religion, sexuality, motherhood and social class and the dangers of repression. She notes that a woman’s access to birth control will shape the course of her future…. So true.
I received a review copy of this heartfelt and unforgettable novel from Knopf in exchange for an honest review. I can honestly say, I loved it! “Saints For All Occasions” will be published on May 10. We have it on the summer reading list for Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice because it’s that good:)