Saints for All Occasions (Sullivan)

Saints of All Occasions 
J. Courtney Sullivan, 2017
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.

A sweeping, unforgettable novel from The New York Times best-selling author of Maine, about the hope, sacrifice, and love between two sisters and the secret that drives them apart.

Nora and Theresa Flynn are 21 and 17 when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. Nora is the responsible sister; she's shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn't sure that she loves. Theresa is gregarious; she is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls on Dudley Street.

But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan—a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand.

Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children: John, a successful, if opportunistic, political consultant; Bridget, quietly preparing to have a baby with her girlfriend; Brian, at loose ends after a failed baseball career; and Patrick, Nora's favorite, the beautiful boy who gives her no end of heartache.

Estranged from her sister, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago.

A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—near Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., Smith College
Currently—Brooklyn, New York, New York

Julie Courtney Sullivan, better known as J. Courtney Sullivan, is an American novelist and former writer for the New York Times. She comes from an Irish-Catholic family where many of the women go by their middle rather than first names.

Sullivan grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. She attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in Victorian literature and received the Ellen M. Hatfield Memorial Prize for best short story, the Norma M. Leas prize for excellence in written English, and the Jeanne MacFarland Prize for excellent work in Women's Studies.

She graduated in 2003, then moved to New York and began working at Allure. Sullivan later moved to the New York Times, where she worked for over three years. Her writing has since appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, New York Observer, Men's Vogue, Elle, and Glamour.

In 2007, her first book was published, a dating guide titled Dating Up: Dump the Shlump and Find a Quality Man; she has since stated that she wrote the book for money and that "fiction was always [her] passion."

She self-identifies as a feminist, a stance that has been reflected in both her fiction and nonfiction work. In 2006, she wrote a piece for the New York Times "Modern Love" column about her experiences in the dating world, and in 2010 she co-edited a feminist essay collection titled Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Her novels often deal prominently with relationships between female characters.

Currently, Sullivan serves on the advisory board of Girls Write Now, a nonprofit organization that pairs young and professional female writers in mentoring partnerships. She has also been involved with GEMS, a New York organization dedicated to ending child sex trafficking.[6]

In 2010, Sullivan published her first novel, Commencement, which focuses on the experiences of four friends at Smith College, Sullivan's alma mater. She wrote 15 different drafts of the book before sending it to her editor, after which it underwent two or three more revisions.

Commencement received positive reviews from many major publications and became a New York Times bestseller. After the book's publication, feminist icon Gloria Steinem called Sullivan personally to offer her praise. Steinem described the novel as "generous-hearted, brave...Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning". In 2011, Oprah's Book Club included Commencement in a list of "5 Feminist Classics to (Re)read as a Mom, Wife and Writer."

Sullivan's second novel, Maine, deals with four women from three different generations of the same family spending the summer at a beachfront cottage in New England. Though Sullivan did not base the fictional Kellehers directly on her own Irish-Catholic family, she drew on her own childhood experiences while writing the novel. Maine received reviews that were slightly more mixed than those for Commencement, but that were ultimately postitive. It was named one of the top ten fiction books of 2011 by Time magazine.

The Engagements
Sullivan's third novel, The Engagements, came out in 2013 to solid reviews. The novel traces four different marriages. Ron Charles of the Washington Post called it, "a delightful marriage of cultural research and literary entertainment." (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/11/2013.)

Book Reviews
[R]ichly told.… Sullivan writes assuredly and engagingly, layering her story with complexity, if not always depth. Perspective shifts among characters, making us care for them, sometimes in spite of themselves, and even laugh at them a little. For all of its sorrow, the book refuses to be weighed down by sadness. In fact, there is a buoyancy that draws its lightness from family conversation, the closeness of siblings, and the care and devotion of nuns in Theresa’s abbey. Much to talk about for book clubs. A super read. READ MORE …
Molly Lundquist - LitLovers

Sullivan succeeds in creating a believably complicated, clannish Irish-American family, and the novel’s most engrossing scenes occur when the Raffertys gather in Nora’s kitchen to drink beer, laugh at inside jokes, finger old wounds and puzzle over their dour, conscientious mother. Because it’s Nora, rather than Theresa, who emerges as the novel’s most mysterious character. Its real drama involves her gradual transformation from a shy, unhappy young immigrant to an established matriarch, with a matriarch’s long skein of pride and sorrow — and secrets.
Suzanne Berne - New York Times Book Review

Here to fill the Brooklyn-sized hole in your heart is the story of sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn, Irish Catholics who journey to America full of hope (Best Books to Read in 2017).
Elizabeth Logan - Glamour 

Sullivan has a gift for capturing complicated sibling dynamics, especially in a family ruled by Catholic repression.… [Her] quiet ending is a satisfying conclusion to this rich, well-crafted story.
Publishers Weekly

Sullivan brings her characters to life, capturing the complexities and nuances of family, tradition, and kept secrets. For all fiction readers. —Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence
Library Journal

Sullivan once again expertly delivers a messy and complicated family story with sharp yet sympathetic writing. —Magan Szwarek

Of Catholic guilt, silences, and secrets: an expertly spun family drama, a genre Sullivan has staked out as her own.… Sullivan often approaches melodrama, but she steers clear of the sentimentality that might easily have crept into this tale of regret and nostalgia.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Describe the differences between Nora and Theresa when they were girls. Did you find it surprising how their paths diverged as they grew older?

2. Discuss Nora’s sense of responsibility and obligation to her family, including as the oldest sibling and following her mother’s death. How does this role, which she adopts from a young age, influence her understanding of motherhood throughout her life?

3. Although Patrick is not alive in the present-day sections of the novel (2009), how does the author give us a full portrait of his character? What do others’ opinions and memories of him help us glean about his personality and behaviors that a more direct interaction with him in the narrative wouldn’t provide?

4. How do all of Nora’s children complement one another, even as we see their vastly disparate feelings toward Patrick? What do their reactions Even though a death is at the center of the novel’s plot, did you find that death was a central concern of the novel’s themes? Either way, what does the cascade of events following a death like Patrick’s suggest about how we might value our time with loved ones and the legacy that we leave them with when we’re gone?

5. Even though a death is at the center of the novel’s plot, did you find that death was a central concern of the novel’s themes? Either way, what does the cascade of events following a death like Patrick’s suggest about how we might value our time with loved ones and the legacy that we leave them with when we’re gone?

6. Discuss the portrayal of romantic love in the novel: between Nora and Charlie, Bridget and Natalie, John and Julia, and other couples. How is it prioritized differently among them, and what are the particular ways that affection and passion manifest themselves between couples?

7. How does Mother Cecilia’s experience in the abbey compare with your expectations of what religious life is like? Were you surprised by any of the stances she took toward the church, other nuns and priests, and changes in culture during the novel’s time period of the late 1950s through 2009?

8. What seem to be the biggest differences between the girls’ lives in Ireland and their lives in the United States? Did you feel that either of them regretted the move at any given point, and why?

9. Describe the shifting gender dynamics over the course of the novel’s time line. In the roughly fifty years that pass, what changes about men’s and women’s roles and what doesn’t, including to the roles influenced by the family’s deep, traditional Irish roots?

10. How do Nora and Theresa respond differently to the task of motherhood that falls upon them, biologically or otherwise? In what ways are they both mothers to Patrick and the other people in their lives? How does the novel upend the traditional definition of motherhood, which Nora describes as “a physical act as much as an emotional one. It took every part of you” (page 229)?

11. How did the structure of the novel influence your understanding of and sympathy toward the characters as the narrative moved back and forth in time? What was the benefit of learning about Patrick, in particular, in this way—seeing him first in a posthumous light and then more closely as he grew up? And how did the perspective on the family that you had as a reader differ from what the characters could know about themselves and one another in real time?

12. What were common threads among the secrets the characters kept from one another? Why do you think some characters, more than others, were more willing to be complicit in keeping those secrets, especially when it came to Patrick?

13. How do you think the circumstances of Patrick’s birth affected his sense of belonging, even if only implicitly? What other characters struggled to feel like they belonged, and how did they deal with those feelings?

14. Early in the novel, Theresa is described as “simply the most. The most brave and beautiful and brash and clever” (page 15). How does this quality help her stay resilient through the many obstacles in her life? How do other characters, including Nora, prove to be resilient in their own ways, and which characters are most successful?

15. What did you make of the end of the novel? Do you think that the sisters will be able to truly forgive each other, or is their past too much to overcome?

16. Consider your own family relationships and customs, including religious beliefs and traditions. Were there parts of the Raffertys’ rituals or conflicts among one another that seemed familiar to you, even if they weren’t specific to being Irish and/or Catholic?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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