In 1967, Rose, pregnant and alone, drives from her home in California all the way to Kentucky to stay in a home for unwed mothers. Thus begins Ann Patchett’s novel, Patron Saint of Liars. Actually, the story starts years earlier in Kentucky when a farmer discovers a bubbling spring on his land. To his astonishment, his sick or wounded livestock are healed after drinking from the pool. Then his daughter falls gravely ill, and after being given water from the spring, she is healed.
The news travels far and wide, and a wealthy landowner buys the portion of the farmer’s property containing the spring and builds a hotel. Later, the spring dries up, and the hotel is sold to the Catholic Church and eventually becomes St. Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers, managed by an order of nuns.
Rose isn’t your typical unwed mother. In fact, she’s married, but for reasons unclear even to her, she’s not happy. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she consults her local priest who refers her to St. Elizabeth’s, far away from California where no one will find her. After leaving a note that doesn’t say much, she hits the road.
You’d think that after being around unwed mothers with no husbands who are forced to give up their babies, Rose would realize her mistake and return home, but that’s not what happens. When she arrives at St. Elizabeth’s, she tells everyone her baby’s father is dead, a common lie. She soon starts working in the kitchen and develops a friendship with an old nun who is quick to provide information about a saint for each day of the year, but there doesn’t seem to be a saint of liars.
Right before Rose is scheduled to give birth, she decides to keep the baby but not to go back to her husband. She marries Wilson, the facility’s maintenance worker who has fallen in love with her and doesn’t know her past. She never tells him, and he never shares his painful past with her. Her daughter Cecelia is born and grows up at St. Elizabeth’s, surrounded by unwed mothers who dote on her as if she were their own. As a teen-ager, she develops a friendship with one of the girls who is close to her age. Will she learn the truth about her mother’s past and who her father really is? The ending might surprise you.
Ann Patchett was born on December 2nd, 1963 in Los Angeles. Her mother, Jeanne Ray, is a novelist. Ann moved to Nashville when she was six, and that’s where she lives with her husband and dog. She went to high school at St. Bernard Academy, a Catholic school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy. After graduation, she attended Sarah Lawrence College where she took fiction writing classes with Allan Gurganus, Russell Banks, and Grace Paley. She later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Fine arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she met Elizabeth McCracken, a longtime friend. While in Massachusetts, she wrote Patron Saint of Liars. In 2010, she co-founded Parnassus Books in Nashville after discovering that her hometown didn’t have a good bookstore. In 2012, she was on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. I’m looking forward to reading her memoir, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, in which she talks about her life with her husband and dog and her experiences running a bookstore, among other things.
After the prolog, Patron Saint of Liars is divided into three sections in which the story is told from the first person point of view of each of the three main characters: Rose, Wilson, and Cecelia. I found Rose frustrating, a complex character I couldn’t understand. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders for her lack of consideration for her family; yet I was amazed by her care of the elderly nun and the other girls. In any case, I was relieved to find Wilson and Cecelia more down to earth, more practical. I like the way the characters relate their experiences as if they were talking to me face to face.
Patron Saint of Liars can be purchased from the author’s Website in a variety of print and recorded formats. It’s also available from Bookshare. I found this book hard to put down, and I hope you will, too.