Ann Patchett’s debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, showcases the kind of insightful, compassionate writing that helped make her magnum opus, Bel Canto, such a critical and commercial success, although Liars lacks the same degree of storycraft found in Bel Canto or in The Magician’s Assistant. It is, however, one of the best sad books I have ever read, as the story of a woman who is hopelessly broken inside and yet can’t help but damage the people close to her through her inability to deal with her own fears and insecurities.
The primary liar in the book is Rose, who flees a comfortable marriage in California when she discovers she’s pregnant and “realizes” – or decides? – that she isn’t actually in love with her husband. She ends up at a Catholic home for pregnant girls who want to have their babies and give them up for adoption, but Rose ends up staying on well past her ninth month – and keeps her daughter as well, only to find herself unable to be a mother to her child or even much of a wife to her second husband. Patchett gives us a window into Rose’s sadness but never much of an explanation for it beyond the death of her father in a car accident when Rose was three. Her own daughter, Cecilia, reaches her early teens before her mother leaves the picture, but Rose is unable to mother her and Cecilia ends up forming bonds both with the nuns who run the facility and the girls who come in for six or seven or eight months and then mostly disappear from her life.
The book comprises three sections, and though Rose is the central character in the book, she only narrates the first third, and her motives for lying and leaving were never fully clear to me. Son, the groundskeeper she meets and marries at St. Elizabeth’s, narrates the second part, and Cecilia handles the third, and both were more compelling, deeply drawn characters with the ability to process and communicate their own complex emotions in ways that Rose’s character cannot. And Sister Evangeline, a sort of grandmother-figure/mystic in the group of otherwise grey, dour nuns is a scene-stealer whenever she appears.
The Patron Saint of Liars is a sad book, but not a bleak one. Rose is clearly depressed and her lack of progress or recognition is heartbreaking, especially as it threatens the lives of those closest to her. But there are streaks of hope not for Rose but for Son and especially Cecilia, who wants her mother to be a mother but has also has the strength to find that nurturing from others and is, at the book’s end, developing into a healthier, fuller person than her mother ever was. It is imperfect, from Rose’s scant motives to her ambiguous fate in what becomes Son’s and Cecilia’s story, but Patchett writes about emotions so clearly and empathetically that I moved through the book’s pages as I might through a novel of action.
Richard Russo’s first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, feels almost like a collection of rarities and B-sides, with a few outstanding entries that, in total, wouldn’t be enough for a full volume, so the publisher stuck in a first draft and a few throwaways to provide some bulk, although the hardcover edition still barely reaches 200 pages even with generous line spacing. The highlights are vintage Russo, though, and it’s worth going through the collection to find those stories and moments.
The main thrust of these stories seems to be failure, especially confronting failure of the past with the uncertainty of the future among his mostly middle-aged protagonists, many of whom are professors, writers, or other sorts of artists. The title story is told by a creative writing professor who has an unusual student auditing his class, one who becomes the star of the show for her brutally honest writing that turns out to be an exploration of her own sad childhood. Several stories revolve around failed marriages – I found “Monhegan Light,” in which a successful cinematographer chooses to meet the man who cuckolded him, only to find himself the loser in the confrontation, very disturbing – and “The Farther You Go” is the ancestor of his novel Straight Man, condensing the story of the narrator’s daughter throwing her husband out of the house.
My main problem with the novel is that the inherently brief nature of the short story limits Russo’s ability to introduce the local color of side characters and the comic relief of subplots and running gags. Instead, we’re left with a sort of stark, gloomy fatalism about lives lived wrong without hope of a turnaround or just a temporary uptick. Only the final story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” brought that mix of humor and sadness in a sort of of coming-of-age story with a number of baseball-related scenes, but the attempts to decipher a complicated adult relationship through the eyes of the ten-year-old title character felt blurry.
I’ve enjoyed the five Russo novels I’ve read, especially Empire Falls and The Risk Pool, but I’d recommend The Whore’s Child for completists (like me) only, as the title story alone isn’t enough to justify buying the whole book.
I received a review copy of a new short story collection by Justin Taylor called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, but the collection doesn’t live up to the title. I found the stories crude and immature, with the young writer’s obsession with sex (and with using sex as the primarily vehicle for meaning in the lives of his characters) and an evident lack of life experience. The characters were uninteresting, sometimes two-dimensional and largely self-absorbed, and their actions struck me as forced.