There’s been some chatter in the book-reading world lately about whether characters’ “likeability” should matter to readers and critics. My own take on this is twofold: first, somehow likeability seems to matter a lot more when we talk about female authors and characters (shocker), but second, it does make a difference to me as a reader if I enjoy spending time with the characters in a book. I don’t have to want them as friends, but I do have to find them interesting and care about their fates in order to truly love a book.
I thought about the “likeability” issue a lot as I read Ann Patchett’s 1992 debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Rose — the book’s first POV character and the person whose actions drive the novel — is one of the more unlikeable protagonists I’ve encountered in my recent reading. But I would still recommend this book unreservedly. It’s haunting and lovely, and while I came away frustrated with Rose and angry about the hurt she’d caused others, I also felt deep sympathy with the fear that drove her actions.
Beautiful Rose Clinton married her husband Thomas on a whim, believing his intense adoration was God’s sign that she was meant to be his wife. But only a few short years later, Rose realizes her mistake: she does not love Thomas and never has. It is 1968 and Rose’s family is devoutly Catholic; divorce does not seem to be an option. When Rose learns she is pregnant, she decides she will disappear from Thomas’s life, go to a home for unwed mothers, and give the baby away. As penance for this abandonment, she will also leave her beloved mother behind. “If I gave up the thing I loved most in the world,” she tells the reader, “then maybe God would respect my desperation.”
It’s a heck of an introduction to a main character, running away from good people who care about her and taking Thomas’s chance to be a father with her. But Patchett’s beautiful prose paints a sympathetic (though never exculpatory) picture of her main character. Rose’s actions come from a perceived lack of options. She longs to be free, to explore, to come and go as she pleases — she would have made an excellent hippie. But Rose can’t reconcile her wanderlust with the person she thinks she ought to be, and this internal conflict triggers events that have repercussions far beyond Rose’s own life.
Rose ends up in Habit, Kentucky, at a charity home called Saint Elizabeth’s. We learn in the prologue that Saint Elizabeth’s used to be a grand hotel built on a spring that was rumored to have healing properties. Although Mother Corrine, the mother superior, takes a near-instant dislike to Rose, she quickly makes other friends at Saint Elizabeth’s, most importantly the kindly Sister Evangeline and Son, the older handyman who maintains the hotel for the sisters. After the birth of her baby, Rose hands the narrative off to Son, who tells his own story and the story of the years at Saint Elizabeth’s after Rose gave birth. The final POV character is Rose’s daughter Cecilia, whose story takes us to the book’s unexpected conclusion.
Like many of Patchett’s books, there are subtle threads of magical realism in The Patron Saint of Liars. Sister Evangeline, for example, has a knack for predicting the sex of babies — a gift she keeps to herself around the young women who plan to give their children away. It is also clear that there might well have been something to the rumor that the spring at Saint Elizabeth’s could heal the ill, although it has long since dried up.
There is no magic cure, however, for the fear and sense of entrapment that brought Rose there. Ultimately, Rose can’t deny the person she truly is — and her attempts to pretend otherwise end up hurting people who care about her. Is Rose a likeable person? A good one? I would say no to both questions. But her story is beautiful.
Rating: Buy It
Note: I wrote this entry before the discovery of a mass grave at a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Ireland. This review was in no way meant as a commentary on that awful discovery.