Last month’s Book Report discussed two novels dealing with marriage. This month’s edition reviews two books about sisters, and in both books, the ties that bind these siblings are fraught with conflict.
J. Courtney Sullivan’s “Saints For All Occasions” begins with the death of 50-year-old Patrick, the oldest son of Nora Flaherty. Patrick led a somewhat troubled life, and his three younger siblings always felt that Nora loved Patrick best and gave him most of her attention.
Nora places a call to a cloistered convent, asking that a message be relayed to Mother Cecilia Flynn that Patrick was killed in a car accident.
The book then moves back in time, to 1957 Ireland, where Nora Flynn is about to leave home to move to America with her fiance, Charlie. Charlie is her neighbor, and the plan was always that they would marry, and their family farms would be combined. But when Charlie’s father left the farm to his eldest son, Charlie had no choice but to go to America.
Nora convinced Charlie to bring her sister Theresa along with them. Whereas Nora was quiet and hardworking, Theresa, the youngest child, was "brave, and beautiful and brash and clever. She was simply the most.”
Nora stayed mostly to herself in Boston, but Theresa loved to go to dances and have fun. When she ends up pregnant, her and Nora’s lives change forever.
We see the sisters over the next 50 years: Nora has become a mother of four, a loving wife to Charlie, a good neighbor and friend. Theresa ends up in a cloistered convent, having run away from her previous life.
The sisters don’t see each other, and Nora’s children are stunned when Theresa shows up at Patrick’s funeral. They never knew that their mother even had a sister! Sullivan has said in interviews that this incident was inspired by a true-life family event, and says that having a wayward, previously unknown family member show up at a funeral is a common occurrence in Irish families.
We also see the interaction between Nora’s children: John, a successful political consultant; Bridget, who runs an animal shelter in New York and is keeping a secret of her own from her mother; and Brian, an athlete who almost made it to the big leagues and idolized his older brother, Patrick.
“Saints For All Occasions” is Sullivan’s best book to date, written with such empathy and compassion for these people, and she nails the sibling relationships so beautifully and realistically. Nora and Theresa are unforgettable. I give it my highest recommendation.
Jane Green’s “The Sunshine Sisters” introduces us to Ronni Sunshine, a hugely popular film actress from the glory days of Hollywood. Now, Ronni is 65 and dying. Her final wish is to bring her three daughters to her bedside to make up for a lifetime of bad behavior.
Ronni was always the brightest light in any room. She loved the spotlight, all the devotion and attention from others. Her daughters, Nell, Meredith and Lizzie, suffered through tantrums, harsh words and criticisms thrown their way from their mother. Mother of the year she isn’t.
Nell runs a farm near her mother’s home, and is mother to River, a college student she gave birth to when she herself was just a teen. She has spent her life working hard to make the farm successful and give her son the love she never got, but her love life has suffered as a result.
Meredith ran away to London as soon as she could to get away from her mother. She gave up her art to become an accountant, and is engaged to marry an insufferable man, a man she does not love, because she believes she can do no better thanks to a lifetime of listening to her mother’s withering comments about her looks and personality.
Lizzie is the youngest, and the one most like her mother. She was mostly spared her mother’s worst criticism, because she was able to laugh it off. Lizzie is a successful chef, but her personal life is unraveling.
I loved reading about the sisters and their evolving relationship (although my favorite character is Greta, who is not a sister). They have grown apart, and now being brought back together has made them re-evaluate what they want from life and each other. Foodies will also love the chef storyline.
If you are a fan of books about families and siblings in particular, “Saints For All Occasions” and “The Sunshine Sisters” should both be on your to-read list.