My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Finished: ~October 13, 2017
What would you give up for your friend’s or loved one’s happiness?
In the early 20th century a husband and soon-to-be father commits suicide by blowing up his apartment. A nun, Sister St Saviour, visits in the aftermath to comfort the widow and straighten things up. Later her granddaughter comments about the nuns: “For years we believed the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross, appeared in every household whenever crisis or illness disrupted the routine, whenever a substitute was needed for She Who Could Not Be Replaced”[Loc 954] The mother, Sally, goes to work in the convent laundry and the daughter, Annie, grows up among the nuns. As their lives progress we see their strengths and weaknesses.
On the practical side, this novel is an illuminating study of the work nuns did back before there were social programs and safety nets. They worked HARD to comfort the afflicted sacrificing so much to pursue their calling. Alice McDermott’s descriptions are beautiful: “The contrast of the nun’s broad black back, solid and shapeless in her veil, and the woman’s thin, bare, flailing white extremities was groteque, startling. They might have been two distinct species: an ostrich in the arms of a great black bear, a grasshopper in the beak of an enormous raven.”[Loc 1312] Will Sally pursue that calling?
Twice we are told that love is a tonic, not a cure. And yet two of the characters do so much for this tonic.
This is a beautiful novel; but if you are new to Alice McDermott, I recommend starting with “Someone”.