J. Courtney Sullivan’s graceful and addictive novel traces 50 years in the lives of Nora and Theresa Flynn, Irish Catholic immigrant sisters making their way in America. As “Saints for All Occasions” opens, Nora is on the first leg of her journey to Boston, leaving her childhood home in County Clare, when we first bear witness to her life-long conundrum of personhood: She had dreamt of making herself over in America. “Yet here she was, not yet to the front gate,” Sullivan writes, “and it was already clear that Nora was stuck with herself.”

The book moves from that time, when Nora was still a shy yet take-charge 21-year-old traveling with her gregarious 17-year-old sister, through a series of unfortunate events, when Nora becomes a mother and is estranged from Theresa. Fifty years later, having settled on the East Coast, we find the two women reuniting after the death of Nora’s son, Patrick.

After decades of silence, Patrick’s sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago that led them to their current lives. Nora is now a staunchly Catholic, bitter matriarch to four colorful children, and Theresa, her intrepid zest for life dimmed, is a cloistered nun living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Following the death, extended family members, too, are profiled in their journeys back home, and through this, we bear witness to the humanity and flaws of Sullivan’s incredibly three-dimensional characters.

The title of the novel comes from a box of prayer cards. Both Nora and Theresa have a devout connection to the Catholic patron saints, steady and reliable constants in their lives, though they fail repeatedly to emulate them. As each sister hopes to find grace in the obstacles they continue to face in their lives (accidental pregnancy, adoption, blackmail, greed, pride), they keep stubbornly refusing humility, emitting an air of condescension for those around them. Sullivan creates portraits of people who never seem willing to rise to the occasion (or will they?), but who are delightful and devastating to know. The characters remind us how stubborn and sensitive we can all be, and it’s difficult not to relate. For example, for four years, Nora attempted (and failed) for Lent to give up criticizing her tomboy daughter’s appearance. Or how once, when the feisty Theresa was a little girl, she was caught bringing a piglet into her bed and was hit on the bottom with a wooden soon. Of this pig incident, Sullivan writes, “It seemed a grave injustice [to Theresa] at the time, but when she thought of it now, she laughed and laughed.” These flawed and lifelike qualities are what makes this book interesting, to say the least, difficult to put down, and impossible not to identify with. And this is what makes Sullivan’s writing so good.

Sullivan is also the author of “Maine,” “Commencement,” and “The Engagements,” three well-received and similarly sprawling novels that chart the long-time coming together of characters around a certain object. She has proven herself adept at creating characters that are entertaining, if not charming, and eminently relatable, and whose stories speak to universal truths. And she places her observations so seamlessly in her character’s minds, that we forget we are reading, but rather we ourselves become the characters we are reading about. After a now-married Nora realizes that her wedding to her childhood boyfriend was less about romance for her than it was about a partnership, Sullivan writes, “Now she saw that marriage was like being in a three-legged race with the same person for the rest of your life. Your hopes, your happiness, your luck, your moods, all yoked to his.”

Sullivan’s technical choice of narrating in the third person affords her the freedom to move in and out of characters and the ability to step back and see the larger landscape of which they’re a part. She submerges the reader in her character’s minds, giving a sense of each person’s isolation. In their heads, we are reminded of the push and pull of freedom and entrapment. In their actions, we are reminded that fate is fate no matter who passes through it. Ultimately, this way of telling a story makes it not only accessible and incredibly readable, but it also gives the reader a fuller sense of how little we can know about someone and how, in the end, the only thing that traps us is ourselves.

“Saints for All Occasional” is episodic and doesn’t have a closing-the-door kind of ending. Life goes on, and on, and on, and Sullivan leaves us with a sense of bewilderment for the inner world of humans, in all their flaws, in all their holiness.


Mira Ptacin is author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” (Soho Press, 2016) and the forthcoming book “The In-Betweens” (W.W. Norton/Liveright). She lives on Peaks Island. She can be contacted through her website:



CORRECTION: This review was updated at 7:10 p.m. on May 9, 2017, to correct a formatting error in the first paragraph that misrepresented a short excerpt from the book as the reviewer’s own writing. 

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