Friday, March 18, 2016

Secrets and lies

Homes for unwed mothers were built on lies. Compassionate lies perhaps, but lies just the same. Ann Patchett explored the nature of these lies in The Patron Saint of Liars, her first novel, published in 1992. Pregnant girls, usually in their teens, would come to these hideaways, have their babies after a few months, give them away for adoption and then return to their homes and schools, pretending to have just been away visiting a relative.

Rose, the central character of Patchett's novel, leaves the other liars in the story in her wake. She is not unmarried like the other girls. Rather she is married to a nice, devoted man whom she has never loved. She views her pregnancy as a chain that will forever link her to Thomas Clinton. So she climbs into his car and drives from California to Habit, Ky., where a Catholic home for unwed mothers is operated in a former resort. She doesn't mention the husband she left behind.

Then things really get complicated. The middle-aged handyman called Son, himself  a lost soul, falls in love with this tall, pregnant beauty and suggests she marry him so they can raise her baby together. She loves Son no more than she does her other husband, but she has nowhere else to go. Besides she has been helping out the old nun who runs the kitchen and realizes the place needs her, even if they are unwilling to pay her.

The first third of the novel is told from Rose's point of view. In the middle third we learn more about Son's life, how he got shot in basic training before he would even get to a World War II battlefield, how the girl he loved in high school drowned and how he wound up in Habit. Cecilia, Rose and Son's now teen-age daughter, takes over in the final third, the most heart-wrenching because we see how the accumulation of lies impact the innocent. When Thomas Clinton finally tracks down Rose, the story approaches its climax.

In novels about secrets and lies, we expect the truth to eventually be revealed to all. Yet in Patchett's hands, most of those secrets and lies remain in place, the lies perhaps just becoming a little whiter, a little more compassionate. This may be her first novel, but she already writes like a master.

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