“The Patron Saint of Liars” by Ann Patchett

I read this book because I loved Patchett’s Bel Canto. In each of these books, Patchett creates a microcosm and draws the reader into it. The microcosm in Patron Saint is St. Elizabeth’s “home” for pregnant girls in an large, disused hotel surrounded by vacant land in Tennessee.

The story uses three narrators in sequence (not jumping from one to another). Rose married young and realized, when she became pregnant, that she did not love her husband. She leaves her husband and her life, and travels from California to Tennesee. Son is the middle aged handy man at St. Elizabeth’s who marries Rose and adopts her daughter. The family stays at St. Elizabeth’s. Cecelia is the daughter, who soaks up love and attention from everyone at St. Elizabeth’s except her distant mother.

Who is the liar? The girls who come to St. Elizabeth’s all tell lies, mostly about the men who impregnated them. Rose refuses to give Cecelia the personal information she craves, depriving her of grandparents and other relatives. Son loves his adopted daughter so much he cannot bear to tell her she is not his biological daughter.

What about St. Elizabeth? Per Wikipedia, Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias were a faithful, honorable couple who grew old without a son. Then their prayers were answered. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary conceived Jesus who was born after Elizabeth’s son John (the Baptist). Elizabeth is revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions.

Elizabeth confirmed to Mary that her son was divinely conceived. So St. Elizabeth is the comforter of young, pregnant girls. The girls waiting out their “inconvenient” pregnancies hope and pray that their children will end up in the  hands of someone like Elizabeth, a wise, kind woman who fervently wants a child.

What can be said about Rose? She caused an incredible amount of pain. Having left her gentle, kind husband, she has the strength to wrest from St. Elizabeth’s an unheard of outcome – marriage and parenthood. She accepts a limited, quiet life at St. Elizabeth’s, then bolts again many years later when her first husband finds her. Cecelia, with a strength beyond her years, gives up on finding out about her heritage and turns her eyes to the future.

What makes this book engrossing? There’s such a contrast between the constant flow of pregnant girls who arrive, gestate and surrender their babies and the static quality of St. Elizabeth’s, where the same few nuns and small staff labor in a setting that almost never changes. There are references to the “outside world”, but they are few.

Sister Evangeline (whose viewpoint we are not offered) seems to be a reincarnation of St. Elizabeth. She is old and kind and has second sight, which gets her into trouble. She is very much loved.

This is a very fine novel, and certainly qualifies as “literary fiction”.

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