I’ve never read Ann Patchett’s most well-known work, Bel Canto (for which she won the PEN/Faulkner prize and the Orange Prize) — but I am very glad that I picked up Patron Saint of Liars.
Rose Clintonn is a good Catholic girl in 1960s California, who lives the life she’s expected to. She goes to church, marries her sweetheart, and appears to settle down. The only inclination of her restlessness is her love of driving — she’ll get in the car and drive aimlessly for hours along the coast. But her life is shaken up when she discovers that she is pregnant. Without telling her husband or her mother anything, Rose decides to leave. She finds a home for unwed mothers run by the church in Kentucky, and she decides to go there to give birth to her child (and then give it up for adoption). But while she’s there, she discovers the home she’s always been looking for. She falls for (well, sort of) the local handyman, and they marry (she conveniently forgets to mention that she’s still married!), and ultimately she gives birth to a daughter.
The text spends about a third each telling the story from the perspective of Rose, her second husband (named Son), and her daughter (Cecilia). While I think it’s always interested to play with narrative structure, in this case I found it too disjointed. I really liked hearing Rose’s thoughts, and when they were taken away and replaced by Son’s, I felt lost. Perhaps this was done intentionally to illustrate how little we can really know of one another. We can only judge the world from our own perspective, however limited that is.
The last third of the book is narrated by Cecilia, who doesn’t really understand either of her parents — because no one in the family seems to talk much. They both have big secrets hidden away, and Cecilia can sense that something is wrong. Again, because we no longer know what the other characters are thinking, we’re just as confused as Cecilia is!
The book is full of suspense, but I have to say that the suspense is never resolved. The reader keeps expecting a big reveal — a major plot point or personality flaw or explanation — but it never happens. Even the ending arrives suddenly, so that you’re left turning the pages looking for the missing pieces.
I really enjoyed this book, but I would warn you that it won’t leave you feeling satisfied or fulfilled. Like any realistic situation, you’ll be left with questions and unexplained circumstances. But then maybe that’s a good thing.