Jessica's Reviews > Saints for All Occasions

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
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really liked it

At the beginning of 2018, I realized I'd never read much in the way of historical fiction devoted to the experiences of Irish or German immigrants to the US. This gave me pause because I come mainly from German and Irish stock, so I'm slowly trying to remedy that. Sullivan's vibrant and poignant story of several post-World War II young adults who move to America in hopes of a better life offers an illuminating peek into the post-war immigrant experience in and around Boston, MA. And when read against the backdrop of the virulent and shameful anti-immigrant sentiment emanating from the current administration, Saints for All Occasions offers useful insights and surprises.

When Nora and Theresa Flynn leave their 1957 rural Irish home for the United States, they don't leave in a headlong rush due to war or economic catastrophe. Rather, Nora's fiancé, Charlie Rafferty, has already moved to Massachusetts to live with family members, making the logistics of arrival and settling in relatively easy. Each girl is overwhelmed in her own way, however, with the magnitude of change their new lives represent. Nora glimpses a future in which she isn't Charlie's bride after all, and Theresa, meanwhile, gets a taste of falling in love. Will they follow the opportunities that arise? How do they reconcile the complexities of leaving home? How does their conversion from Irish to Irish-American take place, and how does it manifest within the relationships and families they foster?

Sullivan successfully tackles all of these questions and a number of others even as she evokes the real and messy realities of Irish-American community in 20th century Boston, MA. Children are born, relationships rise and fall, and heartbreaking decisions are made that will forever change the protagonists and their futures. But as all of this unfolds, of course, the characters themselves barely mention any of it. In true Irish Catholic fashion, pain and suffering is hidden and relationships skim along even as dark and complex feelings bubble beneath the surface. This is Sullivan's true sleight of hand: her ability to give her readers a rich, rewarding, deeply felt story that also illustrates the kind of relationships and situations anyone who grew up Irish Catholic herself will recognize with ease. "Don't mention it," is the mantra of the Rafferty family, and such a mandate is upheld thanks to great force of will, fervent faith and prayers...and a lot of alcohol. As in many such families, however, these protections finally falter and then fall. But not until a family tragedy provokes unprecedented situations...

The ties that bind families to each other and those that bind people to their homes (and homelands) are on vivid and beautiful display throughout Sullivan's narrative. It is engaging, heartbreaking, irresistible, and wry creation - truly Irish Catholic to the core.

Four stars because I did get this book a bit muddled with another Irish immigration story I read, and that irritated me to no end. But a terrific read and set in such an unexpected time (most people think of the late 19th century as the hey-day of Irish influx; situating this in the middle of the Cold War really provides new opportunities for author and reader both)!
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 7, 2018 – Shelved
May 7, 2018 – Finished Reading

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