When Sisters War

Saints for All Occasions

By J. Courtney Sullivan

If you grew up in a family of size, and particularly one with roots in the old country, you appreciate how seemingly small slights can set off a feud lasting years. And family gatherings, oh boy, sometimes they could get, well, explosive. Better to look in on somebody else’s family feud, like Courtney Sullivan’s Irish clan of Rafferty-Flynn.

It boils down to an incident, a very big incident, between the two Flynn sisters, Nora and Theresa. Their family ships them off to America in the late 50s, to Boston and the Irish enclave there. Nora is the older; Theresa the younger. Nora is solid, formal, old Irish to her marrow. Theresa is younger, a teen, impetuous by the standards of the day and the isle they hail from. The idea upon emigrating was for Nora to marry Charlie Rafferty, who preceded her. It almost doesn’t happen, until Theresa gets herself into “trouble,” code of the day for pregnant outside marriage. Then Nora, the responsible one to her own mind, has to hatch a plan. The plan involves taking Theresa’s burden entirely onto herself. Thus, her life in American begins with a lie and a secret that goes on and on, affecting her own family in subtle ways (though among the young, nobody knows Nora has a sister, and that Patrick is not of her issue).

Theresa flees, apparently because she is the irresponsible one. But not really, because the pain of watching Nora raises her baby named Patrick (as well as has and brings up three of her own) is just too painful. She knocks about for a while in New York, and eventually finds solace in her Catholic religion, specifically as a cloistered nun. Thus, she and Nora disappear from each other’s life. Until years later, in 2009, when Patrick dies in single car accident, drunk at the wheel, the opening of the novel.

The story alternates from present to past, back and forth, as well as from character to character, these being the Rafferty children as middle-aged adults, John, Bridget, and Brian. Really, though, it’s Nora’s tale and how she relates to her sister over the years. True, they have little contact, but, as Sullivan clearly portrays, you carry people around with you, in your head and your heart, what you loved about them, your points of resentment and anger, your turmoil over either reconciling or not. And further, how even the closest of people, as Nora and Theresa were in their youth, can never really know what the other thinks or feels, and certainly not when you erect barriers, as Nora does.

Overall, you’ll find this an often engrossing tale of family life of the type that is all but vanishing from the American scene but for immigrant groups, like the Rafferty-Flynns. If you’re from a family of any size, you’ll probably see bits of yourself and your siblings on these pages. There’s much here that will resonate with people, like Charlie and Nora’s frugality for one. “Sixteen dollars for a margarita! I can’t get over it,” shouts Charlie, days after their son John takes them to a fancy beach restaurant. Oh, boy, hear you brother. w/c

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