STARRED REVIEW
May 2017

Secrets of an Irish-American family

J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel opens with a brief but shocking scene, in which tragedy and family secrets tumble forth with urgency. It is 2009 and Nora Rafferty—the matriarch of an Irish-Catholic clan living in the Boston area—is on her way to the hospital. The emergency has something to do with her troubled oldest son, Patrick.

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J. Courtney Sullivan’s latest novel opens with a brief but shocking scene, in which tragedy and family secrets tumble forth with urgency. It is 2009 and Nora Rafferty—the matriarch of an Irish-Catholic clan living in the Boston area—is on her way to the hospital. The emergency has something to do with her troubled oldest son, Patrick.

Once Sullivan (author of the bestsellers Maine, Commencement and The Engagements) has set this stage, Saints for All Occasions jumps back to 1950s Ireland, when Nora was just 21 and about to leave home with her more playful sister, 17-year-old Theresa. The pace of the book becomes more leisurely as Sullivan conveys the rhythms of family life in Ireland and the difficulties of the sisters’ voyage to the states, which may remind readers of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Once the sisters are settled with family in Boston, the narrative shifts from the late 1950s, when Nora and Theresa both begin dating and make a fateful decision, to 2009, when Nora and her children must confront the far-reaching consequences of this decision.

Sullivan captures the nursed grievances and festering wounds of sibling rivalry, not to mention the finer touches—for better or worse—of Irish-Catholic life. The comprehensive portraits of the Rafferty children and their decidedly more bourgeois 21st-century problems may be a bit extensive for some readers. But the tensions simmering under the surface are raw, lending explosive power to the conflicts once they detonate. Particularly well done is Sullivan’s portrait of Theresa and her unlikely path to a life she could not have envisioned when she left Ireland.

Saints for All Occasions is a complex and honest portrait of a very American family—stumbling through the present because they never made sense of the past.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Saints for All Occasions

Saints for All Occasions

By J. Courtney Sullivan
Knopf
ISBN 9780307959577

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