Winner of the 2016 Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, this set of linked stories follows Mary as she grows up in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s, when the city experiences a downward turn into economic struggle and violence. Mary tries to conjure the spirits of protection to confront the social ills of her community, and she moves to cities across the Midwest looking for work and a better life.
Maureen Aitken’s The Patron Saint of Lost Girls pretends to be a collection of short stories but is not. Instead, advantages of both short-story and novel formats are fused into a mutation which is neither. By the time this subterfuge is exposed, it is more deserving of a standing ovation than an apology ... Tension mounts and dissipates as danger and doom dance with laughter and a relentless search for meaning. Every story delivers its punch: either some fleeting sensation too extraordinary for words or an epiphany worth the weight of whatever agony preceded it. Metaphors, dialogue, playful cynicism, and suspense spur plots, characters, and relationships toward their unexpected (but, in hindsight, inevitable) conclusions ... Since only information essential to each narrative is included, resulting gaps function like those optical illusions created by white space in visual art: enhancing perceptual depth of all that appears on the page through the absence of what doesn’t ... Given the astounding result of Aitken’s web of independent yet intimately related stories, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls reveals a previously underexplored genre, one that storytellers have failed to take advantage of. Its rare technique is far worthier of being the norm than the exception.
There are more than a few moments of reckoning in this fine collection of linked stories ... in a down-on-its-luck Detroit that Maureen Aitken manages to make as homey and familiar as it is broken and blighted ... with every disappointment, every troubling encounter and failed liaison, come the quiet epiphanies that make Mary herself, and her life these stories. Aitken, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, ultimately gets her character, following yet another guy, to the Twin Cities (cold comfort!), where her ever more powerful brew of sharp comedy and sharper pathos almost—almost—prepares us for her heartbreaking last chapter.
Indeed, Mary’s complexity as a protagonist will make it easy for readers to forget the work’s fictional nature. Whether she’s struggling to find fulfillment in a career or attempting to navigate a romantic landscape full of bittersweet choices, her emotions resonate with aching familiarity. What makes her exceptional is the strength that she demonstrates in the face of adversity ... Aitken doesn’t shy away from difficult topics in these snapshots; instead, she thrusts them boldly into view ... the author delivers these stories with poetic grace, resulting in a book that will linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page. A moving work that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the human condition.