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.
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, 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.
First a recap - This was Ann Patchett's first
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.
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.
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
I spent most of time pitying the poor people who got in the way of Rose’s
Still, it was very well written – I read it one sitting. I liked that the story was told from three different perspectives - it gave me a fuller picture of the main characters. The supporting characters were great as well – particularly Sister Evangeline and the unwed mothers. I also liked the bond between Son and Sissy. It just wasn’t a cheery book to read.
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.
"I'm making it sound like it was easy, when in fact it was not. It was sad enough to change my life for good, to make the blood reverse the course of its flow in my veins."
"I looked at her name for a while, tried to remember what I had been thinking that night. I loved her. I loved
"I wanted to sit down in the middle of the road and stay there for the rest of my life. Whenever someone came by and said, Hey, Cecilia, what're you doing there in the road, I'd tell them, missing people was a full-time job, being sorry about what was gone was going to take every waking minute now, so much time and energy that I had no choice but to stay right on that spot until they all decided to come back. I meant it as a joke at first, but then I looked down at the gravel and really thought about it. I couldn't wait for them. They weren't coming back. I'd been trying all my life to figure out what was going on, with my mother, with all those girls that come and then go away. But now I wanted to forget. Right then I decided, as much as I'd wanted to know before, from here on out I didn't want to know at all."
Except for a brief opening chapter about the novel's setting, the whole book is told in first
At the home, Rose learns the rules, both written and unwritten; befriends the elderly nun who works in the kitchen, and discovers a talent for cooking. Shortly before her baby is due, she marries Son, the one man at St. Elizabeth's, and continues working as the unpaid cook for the home.
Son (Wilson) is 25 years older than Rose. He is also removed from his time in that, while he had enlisted in the Marines on the day after Pearl Harbor, a stupid accident in boot camp removed him from the formative experience of men in his generation. Another accident caused him to leave his home and parents and wander the mid-South until he settled at St. Elizabeth's.
Their daughter Cecilia, born in 1967, goes to school in the little town of Habit, Kentucky, but grows up amid the pregnant girls and nuns at St. Elizabeth's. She is also mothered by June Clutterbuck, who owns the land on which the home stands, and grandmothered by Sister Evangeline, the kitchen nun who mothers and befriends Rose. Cecilia feels deeply the emotional absence of Rose, who does all the correct physical tasks of mothering but none of the emotional ones, keeping her core self hidden from her husband, daughter, and even from Sister Evangeline.
Many important events take place in this book, which might be spoilers if recounted in a review. At the end we are left with some understanding of Rose and Son, and of the peculiar family that is St. Elizabeth's; and we wonder what will become of Cecilia. Patchett is not the type of author who writes sequels, but I do wish that some day, with the craft and wisdom she has shown in later books, she would revisit Cecilia.