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.