Saints for All Occasions is exactly the kind of sprawling family saga I love to read (and sometimes write). In the late 1950s, two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, set out for America. Nora is not so much following dreams as following a sense of obligation — to a fiancee she isn’t sure she wants to marry, who has already gone ahead of her to Boston. Theresa, her prettier, smarter, braver younger sister, has great dreams of life in America. Nora has only fears.
But before we even meet Nora and Theresa, we find out that in 2009, Nora’s fifty-year-old son Patrick, the eldest of her four children, dies in a car crash. The threads of story that link Patrick’s troubled life to his mother’s and aunt’s arrival in America half a century ago will make up the plot of the novel, along with a vivid overview of the Boston Irish immigrant experience over the second half of the twentieth century.
There’s everything here you would expect: family secrets, an iron-willed Irish matriarch, a family bound and torn by loyalties and rivalries. There are a few things you wouldn’t expect, like fascinating glimpses into the life of a convent of cloistered nuns in the post-Vatican II era. It’s all carried along with great characterization — not only Nora and Theresa but each of Nora’s four grown children are well-rounded, engaging and fascinating characters. All together it makes for a very competent depiction of family, community, and how the choices you make when you’re young shape the person you end up becoming, sometimes in unexpected ways.