St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she has left behind . . . and who she has become in the leaving.
But after watching one of the girls deliver a baby at the home, she changes her mind about giving up her baby and decides to keep her daughter when she's born.
A handyman at the home, Son, an ex-marine escaping from his own past, has come to love Rose's quiet fortitude and beauty. He asks her to marry him, and she agrees, sparing no consideration for her past and the fact that she's already married. He's had his share of heartache that he's not willing to share. But what he is determined to be is Rose's daughter's father.
Into this family comes Cecilia, who grows up within the grounds of St Elizabeth and learns that all the girls who comes here will eventually leave one day to have their babies and not return. It's almost heartbreaking to watch the child crave her mother's attention and love and then to watch that adoration turn into teenage resentment and bewilderment as Rose remains to all extents, detached from her family.
The book is divided into 3 sections, each narrated in turn by Rose, Son and Cecilia. Through them we are privy to the emotions and thoughts that they are unable or unwilling to share with others, and that helps us understand them a little better.
I thought this was a good study into characters of different complexities. The lies that are told to protect oneself, and the lies told to protect others.
The characterization of Rose in this story is unsettling. Despite being the main character, she is someone you feel you never really get to know, deep down. However, this doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the book because it is so well written. This was actually the first Ann Patchett novel I've read, despite having some others in my TBR stack, and now I'm anxious to delve into those as well.
Rose, too, does not plan to keep her baby. But she also knows she will not go back to California. During the course of her pregnancy, she eases into the rhythm of life at St Elizabeth’s, first helping Sister Evangeline in the kitchen and over time assuming most of the daily food service responsibilities. By the time her baby is born St Elizabeth’s is home, and Rose has found a way to make a life for herself within the social norms of the day.
Some novelists might choose to end things right there. But Ann Patchett has much more in store for Rose and St Elizabeth’s over the ensuing 15 years. Rose is a strong woman, but unable to show affection let alone create and sustain intimate relationships. Only Sister Evangeline, one of the most endearing characters in this book, is able to penetrate her shell. But even so, she is unable to heal Rose’s inner wounds. And again, some novelists might have taken the storyline to a very predictable place. But in this, her 1992 debut, Ann Patchett shows signs of the brilliance that led to Bel Canto and other novels, with a surprising, emotional and satisfying resolution to Rose’s story.
Patchett has a gift for portraying characters who seem real, and using small details to make them come to life. Even when you don't like her characters, you care about what happens to them.
Rose is a cold character and the first section of the book was hard for me to get into. About 1/3 of the way in we switch to a different point of view, that of the home’s handyman Son, and after that things clicked for me. By the end of the book we rotate perspective once more, seeing the world through Rose’s daughter Cecelia’s eyes. These alternative POVs made things work so much better because Rose is such an intentionally hard character to connect with. Since we started from Rose’s POV I should have understood her character better, but she kept the reader at such a distance.
I loved the interaction of the women at St. Elizabeth’s. There’s such an intense bond of shared experience, almost like a summer camp on steroids. I was reminded a little bit of the scene from When She Woke in the women’s home. The women form friendships quickly because they are all pregnant and alone in the world in some way.
I think what I loved about the book was the quiet rhythm that you get into without even realizing it. Not much happens, but there’s a steady flow of time, women come and go with the years and all the while Rose is a steady force, never changing. I also loved the character of Sister Evangeline, an older nun who is the only one who seems to understand Rose.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s an extremely good first novel. Patchett’s gift for storytelling has clearly improved with time, but I still enjoyed this one. I also love being able to compare her early work to her later work.
First a recap - This was Ann Patchett's first novel, which makes it all the more brilliant. From the jacket: "St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she has left behind... and who she has become in the leaving."
In further reflection, I'm not sure I'm SUPPOSED to be crazy about Rose. Perhaps if Rose had done things the way I wanted her to do them (it's all about me, after all) all through the book instead of being selfish and doing hurtful things just when I thought she was coming around, perhaps then I'd have found her to be a lovely and redeeming character. But now as I'm writing it out this way, perhaps that is all a part of what makes this story brilliant.
I'm always so pissed by jerkaround formulaic stories (think Sparks) that are all alike and simply trying to rip your emotions from you just for that reaction and you can predict everything that is going to happen. This story? Thi is a simple, honest story of a woman who is the ultimate escapist running from her life and her past and the impact of her actions on the people who love her.
Ann Patchett tells the story in three parts and from three perspectives, from the single mother Rose, from the daughter, and from the second husband. And it is all done seamlessly.
I'm coming around! I think this is an excellent read and I'm bumping my rating up from the original 3 1/2 stars to at least a 4. Fabulous.
This is the third Patchett book I’ve read (after The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto) and probably my favorite so far. Some of my enjoyment probably comes from being about the same age as Rose (at the beginning) and the pregnant women. Her portrayal of love, lying, loneliness and motherhood are brutal and honest. This one reminds me of the best of Anne Tyler.
I enjoyed the book as it was told from Rose's and even Son's perspective. I did not care for the daughter's perspective which included an ending that was too abrupt although somewhat expected.
Patchett has definitely developed as a novelist throughout her career. I found this story to be a bit simpler than her more recent works. But the clean language and themes match the rural Kentucky setting. The challenges that Rose and Cecilia have connecting with one another loom even larger against a backdrop of girls who have made the choice to give their babies up for adoption. And the secrets unfold at a controlled pace that provide for a very satisfying read. Patchett has also created one of my favorite minor characters in Sister Evangeline, who understands Rose and Cecilia better than they understand themselves. In all, this was an enjoyable read.