When we think of lies, we usually think about the fantastic story that they spun or the tics that gave them away. But as I read Ann Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars, I started to think about the lies we tell when we don’t speak. Of the three narrators in this novel, two have made such big mistakes that the only way to deal with them was to move away and never talk about them again.
There used to be homes for girls across the country, usually run by one church or another, where unwed girls and women could go to have their babies before giving them up for adoption. Patron Saint of Liars is set at one such home, St. Elizabeth’s in extremely rural Kentucky. Our first narrator is Rose Clinton. Rose married because she thought she was supposed to marry Thomas Clinton. All her life she’d been heading for marriage, but none of the boys made her feel anything until she married Thomas. Before long, Rose realizes that she doesn’t really love him. She takes to driving aimlessly around San Diego. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she learns about St. Elizabeth’s from her priest and sets out across the country. Rose tells the nuns that her husband died and settles into the house filled with women.
Though the first third of the book is narrated by Rose and the rest of the book revolves around her, Rose is hard to understand. She’s vaguely unsatisfied. She doesn’t fit into the mold. But when she sets her mind to something, Rose won’t let anyone move her. One night, one of the other inmates gives birth to twins in silence, just so that she can hold her children during the ambulance ride to the hospital before they can be given away. At the time the book opens, in the late 1960s, the practice was to take the babies away as soon as they were born. The mothers never saw them again. Something in Rose gives and she decides that she will keep her child somehow. That somehow turns out to be marriage to Wilson Abbot, known as Son, the caretaker of St. Elizabeth’s.
For those keeping score, this marriage is Rose’s second. She doesn’t regret running away from her first husband, but committing bigamy is the thing that Rose will never speak of again. In the second third of the novel, Son takes over duties as narrator. He talks about life with Rose. He meditates on the difference between loving a woman and loving one’s child. Loving one’s child, he thinks, is like loving breathing. It’s instinctive. When you love a woman, Son thinks, you’re always aware that she’s lending herself to you for a while. Son eventually reveals to the reader, if no one else, the secret that he ran away from: the accident that took the life of the woman whose name is tattooed on his arm.
The last, short third of the book is narrated by Rose’s daughter, Cecelia. Cecelia grew up with many mothers. While Rose worked in St. Elizabeth’s kitchen feeding everyone, the girls took turns being mother to the little girl because they wouldn’t be a mother to the child they were carrying. It’s a heartbreaking thought and, fortunately, Cecelia is unaware of this for years. But she’s dissatisfied with Rose’s aloofness. Rose doesn’t seem to know how to love like other people. She loves Cecelia, but never says it and never spends much time with her child. This third really made me wish that Patchett had given the narrative reins back to Rose, so that I could learn more about why that woman was the way she was.
The secrets never go away, even though they’re never spoken of. It’s not healing; it’s coping. For that reason, Patron Saint of Liars is a rich but unusual read. It doesn’t wrap itself up in a neat moral. I finished reading it yesterday, and I’m still puzzling through what it all meant. I like that about the book. I know that I if (when) I open it up again, I will be rewarded with even more insights about how people move on in spite of regret, shame, and disapproval.