by Ann Patchett
Patchett’s first book introduces us to Rose, a married woman who decides she’s never loved her husband and she wants out. She’s pregnant, but still decides to leave her life in California behind. She takes off and ends up at St. Elizabeth's, a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Kentucky.
Rose is a cold character and the first section of the book was hard for me to get into. About 1/3 of the way in we switch to a different point of view, that of the home’s handyman Son, and after that things clicked for me. By the end of the book we rotate perspective once more, seeing the world through Rose’s daughter Cecelia’s eyes. These alternative POVs made things work so much better because Rose is such an intentionally hard character to connect with. Since we started from Rose’s POV I should have understood her character better, but she kept the reader at such a distance.
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.