Tolstoy was probably right when he said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Still, the forms of gloom that tend to envelop Irish-Catholic families can seem awfully alike. For chroniclers as diverse as James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank McCourt, poverty, drink, and sexual repression are recurring themes. Shame and fear of damnation are never far off.
Onto this well-cultivated literary terrain steps J. Courtney Sullivan, whose fourth work of fiction, “Saints for All Occasions,” tells the story of two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn. Seeking to better their lot in America, they leave rural Ireland behind. What follows could become standard fare in the hands of a less talented writer. But Sullivan’s assiduous layering of details brings her characters warmly to life, demonstrating that a shared experience can still be a singular one.
Sullivan achieved early literary success with a first novel (“Commencement”) set at Smith College, her alma mater. Since then, the Milton native has steadily widened her imaginative claims on New England. Her latest work touches down in Dorchester, Hull, and Weston, as well as Vermont. But Sullivan is less a writer of place than of people. The family saga, told in multiple voices, appears to be her natural literary home.
“Maine,” Sullivan’s second novel, brought three generations of the Kelleher family together at a beachfront summer house. Like “Maine,” “Saints for All Occasions” is dominated by female characters and takes up the power of family secrets to disfigure individual lives.
After the Flynn sisters’ mother dies, the reserved Nora steps in to look after her vivacious younger sister. Nora spends the trans-Atlantic crossing sick with worry. Theresa, though, quickly makes new friends and turns shipboard life into a happy adventure.
In New York, the sisters are met by Charlie Rafferty, Nora’s intended from back home (the plan is for them to marry and eventually return). He drives them to Boston, where they are to live among his relatives. Nora will work; Theresa will train as a teacher. But a crisis pregnancy and the schemes used to conceal it upend the sisters’ plans, ultimately leading to their estrangement. Their shared secret drives the novel, spawning a few new secrets along the way as Nora throws herself into raising a family and Theresa embraces religious life.
For some readers, the novel’s early scenes will evoke Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel “Brooklyn,” which follows a similar trajectory. Both books depict the closed-mindedness of village life in 1950s Ireland; the difficulty of the ocean voyage; the ways of the rooming house; the loneliness of expatriate life; and the salvation of organized dances.
But Sullivan’s focus is looser, her prose more businesslike. She works with more characters and a broader historical span. The story shuttles between 2009, when an unexpected death draws the family together, and the Flynn sisters’ youth.
The novel’s title comes from a pack of prayer cards kept by Aunt Nellie, who shares the house where the sisters settle in. Theresa is especially taken with the cards and their depictions of individual saints. Since childhood, the mystic bonds of Catholicism have held her more closely than they have her pragmatic sister.
Though Theresa has taken religious vows, her beliefs evolve with the times. She becomes a quiet advocate for honesty. Nora, though, shoulders the faith’s heavy mantle of duty in ways that stunt her own emotional growth as well as her children’s.
John, her anxious-to-please second oldest, becomes a successful political consultant but resents the favor his older brother, Patrick, inexplicably enjoys. Bridget, the only daughter, channels her emotions into her work at an animal shelter and cannot fully open herself to her mother about her female partner. Brian, the youngest, is directionless after a short-lived career in baseball.
Sullivan’s attempts to create convincing back stories occasionally miss. To illustrate John’s professional bona fides, she implies that he worked for Mitt Romney (“a wealthy Mormon businessman, who wanted to be governor of Massachusetts”) but does not actually name him. It’s puzzlingly coy.
And the young graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who joins Theresa’s convent — despite her successes at New York galleries — may raise a few eyebrows. But such false notes are few.
As the younger generation risks greater emotional exposure, the novel proposes, there is cause for hope. At one point, Maeve, Nora’s adopted Chinese granddaughter, shares a ditty from school: “Secrets secrets are no fun, unless they’re shared by everyone.” For unhappy families, as for democracies, sunshine may be the best disinfectant.
SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Penguin Random House, 352 pp.
M.J. Andersen is a former editorial-page writer for The Providence Journal and the author of the memoir “Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner.”