With my over-enthusiasm for Ann Patchett novels, I embarked on one of her earliest, The Patron Saint of Liars. Set in the early 1960s, it begins with the deeply unsatisfied character of Rose. Married at 20 to a young man who utterly adores her, she finds no solace in anything but driving up and down the California coast.
Rose then finds out she is pregnant, and with that knowledge, she retreats, both physically and mentally, driving to Saint Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers run by a group of nuns deep in the wilds of Kentucky. Rose disappears into a world most people pretend doesn’t exist, and yet it is there that she finally has found some sort of solace. She takes over the kitchen of the doting elderly Sister Evangeline and finds a purpose as she undertakes feeding all the people at Saint Elizabeth’s:
As for anyone worrying that Sister Evangeline’s feelings were being hurt by the sudden popularity of the food, nothing could have been further from the truth. She just didn’t get it, and no one would have been so unkind as to explain it to her. She reveled in her newfound attention. Suddenly the kitchen was full again. After every meal a stream of pregnant girls poured through, all generous in their praise. Girls came by to help or sometimes just to sit on one of the long steel tables and talk while we worked. After all of Sister Evangeline’s years of exile in the kitchen, Saint Elizabeth’s had finally rediscovered her.
But for what good Rose does, there seems to be no breaking her inability to open up to people. She is afraid of letting people in; or perhaps, she cares too much to undertake watching other people suffer. Patchett does a remarkable job creating a character that is so tangible, and yet, someone we can never break into. Just as the people around Rose fall for her, the reader can’t help be captivated by her laconic ways and gripping presence.
It’s not a perfect novel by any means. But Patchett is at her strongest here, creating ordinary characters who somehow find themselves in remarkable situations. They are ordinary and quiet, but that is why their paths into strange worlds seem all the more believable.
And besides, what Catholic (or anyone else for that matter) doesn’t like a story about the strange world of nuns? Or Southern legends about springs that miraculously cure people?