...[a] quiet masterpiece ... In a simple style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family ... Indeed, the ferocious discipline of these two sisters is matched only by the author’s. Sullivan never tells too much; she never draws attention to her cleverness; she never succumbs to the temptation of offering us wisdom. She trusts, instead, in the holy power of a humane story told in one lucid sentence after another.
Sullivan lets readers in on these secrets even as most of her characters stay in the dark, elevating the novel above the average family drama. With tenderness and a knack for depicting Irish grandmothers that anybody who has one will appreciate, Sullivan celebrates ordinary people doing their best to live saintly lives.
Although each of the Rafferty children could use a few more contradictory moments, and the narration can become ponderous, Sullivan succeeds in creating a believably complicated, clannish Irish-American family, and the novel’s most engrossing scenes occur when the Raffertys gather in Nora’s kitchen to drink beer, laugh at inside jokes, finger old wounds and puzzle over their dour, conscientious mother. Because it’s Nora, rather than Theresa, who emerges as the novel’s most mysterious character. Its real drama involves her gradual transformation from a shy, unhappy young immigrant to an established matriarch, with a matriarch’s long skein of pride and sorrow — and secrets.
Sullivan is a master at making a sideways glance or a revealed detail add to a larger picture that she takes her time in building, one that might just as easily bear as its title a wise remark in passing: 'Loving and knowing weren’t the same.' Sullivan often approaches melodrama, but she steers clear of the sentimentality that might easily have crept into this tale of regret and nostalgia.
But one such kindred spirit [of Meave Binchy] is J. Courtney Sullivan, whose Irish-American family drama Saints for All Occasions is touched with the same warmth, kindness and gentle wisdom ... A low, steady voice urging faithfulness and forgiveness is audible in Saints for All Occasions as Ms. Sullivan draws her characters together in a moving conclusion. Despite the secrets between them, and despite the colorful South Boston bickering that animates their conversations, the novel eloquently testifies to the durability of the fabric of family.
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] 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 ... 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.
What follows could become standard fare in the hands of a less talented writer. But Sullivan’s assiduous layering of details brings her characters warmly to life, demonstrating that a shared experience can still be a singular one ... Sullivan’s attempts to create convincing back stories occasionally miss...but such false notes are few.
The story jumps through time, from the 1957 arrival of sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn from Ireland to the present, each part narrated by a different member of the family, elegantly woven together to form a more complete, if not quite intact, picture of how the consequences of choices made by Nora and Theresa 50 years earlier came to define not only the two of them but each of Nora’s now-grown children, who love and loathe their mother in equal measure. Sullivan once again expertly delivers a messy and complicated family story with sharp yet sympathetic writing.