Saints for All Occasions

I have a thing for books about dysfunctional families.

I think that this is a newer discovery of mine – I’ve always been drawn to books about big families with lots of secrets but I didn’t think too much about it until Sarah @ Sarah’s Bookshelves mentioned the same.

The Nest. Dead Letters. The Roanoke Girls. Crazy Rich Asians. Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty. The Family Fang

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan.

I’d only read one of Sullivan’s books before, The Engagements, and while I liked it, I wouldn’t say it bowled me over. Still, I enjoyed it enough to mean to read her other work (Maine, Commencement). Then, I heard about Saints for All Occasions.


Sisters Nora and Theresa, 21 and 17 respectively, come over on the boat from Ireland to Boston. Nora, to marry Charlie from back home who has moved to Boston for a better life, near others in his family who have made the move; Theresa because Nora couldn’t bear to leave her behind, having been more like a mother to her their whole lives. Nora, serious and hardworking, gets to the business of building a life for her and Charlie in Boston. Theresa falls in love with Boston and everything it has to offer: dances, clothes she’d never dream of having back home, cute young men.

When Theresa gets pregnant, it’s up to Nora to come up with a plan that will have ramifications for both women, and their family, for decades to come. And when there’s an unexpected death in the family, everyone will have to come to terms with what happened all those years ago.

The story is told in chunks of time, from alternating viewpoints. Nora, Theresa, Nora’s children. You find out on the first or second page that it is Patrick who has died, but even in death he is a major character in this book; the motivation for so much. As the family comes to terms with his passing, you can see what an impact he had on all of them: for Nora’s son John, estranged from his brother Patrick for the last 8 months, coming to terms with what he thought he knew about their relationship; daughter Bridget, the only girl, who is planning on having a baby with her girlfriend but who has never officially told the family that she is a lesbian; for Brian, the baby, who worked alongside Patrick every day, at a loose end, not sure what’s next.

Sullivan has weaved a story around this family, threaded with loss and faith and rules of a Church that once had the final word in all. It’s a story about motherhood and love and family ties and what it looks like when your life doesn’t pan out exactly the way you planned it to.

I devoured this book in a day, all 333 pages of it. I loved spending time with the Raffertys, finding out just what had happened all those years ago. Sullivan is skilled at telling you just enough to be satisfied, knowing that is still holding out on you. I almost rated it 5 stars but, while I appreciated the ending, when it came, it felt a bit rushed. I wouldn’t have blinked at another 40 pages of story.

Still, if you’re a fan of Sullivan’s, or enjoy dysfunctional families like I do, this will be a winner for you. I also think that fans of Ann Patchett’s, or Brooklyn by Colm Toibin will find something to appreciate in this book. And, I’d totally endorse it as a beach read!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book. 



Putting the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional: The Family Fang

I’m a big fan of reading about dysfunctional families. There’s something about reading about people that have their lives even less figured out than I do that I enjoy. Dysfunctional families are always a mess but they are usually also the first to look out for each other. Just in really messed up ways.

Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang was on my list for a long time. Then, when I was killing time ahead of an evening class (in a bookstore obviously), I found it on sale for $6. In hardcover.


family fang

The Family Fang is the tale of the Fangs: parents Caleb and Camille are performance artists who rope their children, Annie and Buster (known as Child A and Child B in their pieces), into participating in their work. This means that from a very young age, Annie and Buster go to malls with their parents and create disturbances: their mother shoplifts candy unsuccessfully and Buster gleefully throws it all over the place while Annie notifies the store manager about the theft; the children perform music very badly and their parents heckle them to try and create conflict amongst the audience; Caleb and Camille hand out bogus coupons to customers in the hopes that the customers will get angry and cause a scene when they can’t redeem them and Annie and Buster are supposed to film it.

But eventually Annie and Buster grow up and leave to lead their own lives. Annie is a talented actor, earning an Oscar nomination; Buster writes a couple of brilliant novels before taking freelance work writing articles for men’s magazines. His last assignment has him get hit in the face with a potato gun; Annie has a meltdown on set over a nude scene. Both of them wind up back at home, picking up the pieces of their lives.

They’ve both done their best to distance themselves from their parents’ work but in their absence, Caleb and Camille have been trying to carry on. The problem is that, without the children, their pieces don’t seem to have the same effect. They are planning one final project but Annie and Buster don’t want any of it.

Normally with these kinds of stories, you get to a point where the people realize that the most important thing in the world is their family. That they would do anything to be a part of the lives of their children, that they would do anything to get to spend time with their parents.

This is not that book.

And I loved that. Caleb and Camille’s latest project is a horrible one. It leaves Annie and Buster at a loose end when they are most vulnerable, when their respective lives are a shambles. An argument could be made that Caleb and Camille aren’t pandering to their children, aren’t putting their own dreams on hold to help sort their kids out. But Annie and Buster know that their lives are a mess and they are working on getting themselves back on track. They put their lives on hold to try and work out what Caleb and Camille are working on and in the end, their parents choose their work over their children.

This is less a story about what it means to be a family and more about the fact that sometimes you just gotta cut and run. Sometimes it’s just easier to not have those people in your life and you need to move on.

The Family Fang was a refreshing, hilarious but thought provoking take on the dysfunctional family genre. If you like black humour and Wes Anderson films, you’ll like this one.