Rating: 5 Stars! (and an exclamation point)
|Photo from Goodreads|
I read an interesting article a while back in the New York Times about the loss of faith in fiction. As a religious person myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fiction I read and if there are any books that tackle the depths and complexities of the religion that I know. I think it is incredibly hard to portray religion with truth and not have it seem hokey or overly dramatic. One book that I immediately thought of was, The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. And lucky for me, it was on my list to (re)read this year. I've read a bunch of different reviews on this book and it really surprised me how little religion was brought up. Even with such a great, seemingly contradictory title!
This story begins with the beautiful Rose, who has grown up in the church and believes so strongly that she is entitled to a sign from God that she looks everywhere for it. She says, "I did not ask for more than my share, one sign. That which was by rights mine because I believed and was so ready to listen." In the very next paragraph she says, "Nun or Wife, my choices loomed above me like giant doors, and I waited, listening for God to give me the word." She believes that those are her two choices and that God will clearly tell her what she should do.
So when a romantic, handsome man comes to her and tells her beautiful things...she assumes that this is her sign. She marries him and she is happy at her wedding. She believes she is doing what God has called her to do and she is happy about it. After a couple years of marriage, she suddenly could no longer breath unless she was out alone on the road...free in her car. She realized that she had "said yes to Thomas Clinton and later thought that I had said yes to God and later still realized I had said yes only to Thomas Clinton." She was nineteen years old and "knew so little that I took [sexual desire] to be a sign from God."
Rose finds out that she is pregnant and she panics. She doesn't want this life...boring, routine life because she thinks that God has some other sign for her. She runs away from her husband and her mother and flees to a home for unwed pregnant women. She lies to all of the nuns, telling them that she wasn't married and that the father had died. Rose feels like she can leave her husband without telling him that she is pregnant because she will have to suffer herself by giving up her mother. That is her idea of penance...since she will suffer, she feels like she doesn't have to be remorseful.
It was also intriguing to me how all of her images of God are tied up in the men that she knows. She is so incredibly close to her mom, but she is always looking for the men to show her God. First she thinks Thomas Clinton is her link to God. Then she admits that whenever she asked for forgiveness at church, she really just asked forgiveness from her priest, as she often viewed him as her father. Later at the home for unwed pregnant women she describes the maintenance man, who happens to be named Son, that he "seemed to bear all of our pains." Her language implies that she thinks of him as some Christ figure.
Rose fully intends on giving up her baby. She never picked out a name for her, she never made baby clothes...she really just shut her mind off to the fact that she was pregnant. At one point, she has a kind of exhaustion induced meltdown. She goes out to this field in the cold and demands that God gives her another sign because she misread the last one. She yells, "Your will be done. Okay? Tell me what in the hell that's supposed to be." Rose is so eager to do what God wants her to do but she is so lost at what that might be. Suddenly in her state of delirium, Son comes to save her from the cold. Patton writes, "The figure that came toward me in the whiteness was huge, big enough to be the Son of Man. He who so loved man He sent His only Son." And suddenly, she decides she is going to marry this Son. She thinks that God is once again telling her to marry a man that she doesn't love. So she does it. She marries him so she could keep the baby.
So she stays on and runs the kitchen. Somebody mentioned to her that suddenly, she was treated like one of the sisters. Rose replies, "That's an awful thought." And I have to wonder why is that awful? Is it awful because she always believed that she either had to be married or be a nun...and if now she is like a nun...she made terrible mistakes twice in her life?
The book is divided up into three different parts, the first is Rose's story. The second is Son's and the third is the daughter's story, Cecelia. As the book progresses, Rose drifts further and further away. You begin to see just how closed off and weighed down from all her lies she really is. Rose cooks, raises her daughter, and is married to Son. She barely has time for Cecelia and is definitely not the mom that Cecelia craves. Rose was looking for her own mom for so long that she couldn't even think about being a mom herself. I better stop there before I give any of the ending away!
As you step away from Rose, Cecelia takes a more center stage. Growing up among a hotel full of unwed pregnant girls and nuns, she has a unique upbringing to say the least. But in many ways she is lucky. She is growing up with religion but she has people that can help her negotiate the complexities of God. When she is dealing with something, Sister Evangeline tells her directly that "This isn't any sign from God." She is surrounded by various people who can teach and help her along her path. She isn't isolated and alone in her religion, like Rose. Yes, Rose was very close to her mom, but never did she mention that they were close in a spiritual way. They talked about make-up, beauty, marriage, movies, etc. Maybe this is why Rose was always looking to the men in her life for that spiritual void.
The first time I read this book, I naturally assumed that the Patron Saint of Liars was Rose. Her very first sentence mentioned how she was going to be a liar for the rest of her life. The word liar or lie must have referred to her at least a dozen times in the book. She was constantly lying to herself and the people around her. But the second time through, I couldn't' help but think of her daughter as the Patron Saint of Liars. Cecelia is surrounded by girls who lie about their lives--their pasts especially. She grew up with her lying mother. Even her father (Son) lies to her about being her real father. Yet, there is a part of the book where a girl mentions that all of the girls want to be her because she is different than them...but doesn't judge them. They all look up to her in a way. She is one of them but isn't one of them. She is guided by the nuns to see and have the touch of holiness that the town has in its water.
And I can't help but think that if Cecelia really is the patron saint, then maybe her mother, Rose, was really missing her sign from God all along.
My lessons from this book: Learn from those around you. Talk to others about religion and God. Even when you can't articulate what you feel...try! Be open, be vulnerable.