Review

Living With Saints

by Mary O'Connell

Read an Excerpt



A gripping, cleverly conceived debut collection of 10 short stories
that draw parallels between the lives of Christian women saints and
the complex experiences of contemporary women. Each of the 10
stories revolves around a particular saint --- sometimes the saint
appears and advises the protagonists, sometimes the very example of
the saint is used as a jumping off point for the story. Throughout,
O'Connell deals with difficult issues such as teenage pregnancy,
incest, and abortion. Most of the protagonists are young women
facing some crisis, usually one involving the consequences of
sex.

In "Saint Therese of Lisieux," a Catholic high school girl named
Kendra conceals a horrible secret: her father is molesting her. Her
teacher asks her to write a paper on St. Therese of Lisieux, who
had chosen a monastic life as a young girl. Kendra, with her
secret, feels she knows why the saint chose to escape from the
world. She dreams of a similar kind of escape. At story's end, she
decides to put a stop to her father: "I've planned how to start
saying no, decided how things are going to change." When her father
attempts to molest her again, a strange odor emanates from Kendra
--- it's a miracle she ascribes to St. Therese. Her father stops,
although Kendra's psychological devastation seems to be only
beginning.

In "Saint Dymphna," a teenage girl named Dymphna visits a clinic to
have an abortion. She's harassed by a crowd of protesters who wait
in front of the clinic, and one of the protesters publicizes her
abortion to her Catholic high school classmates. Instead of the
ignominy Dymphna expects to receive, she is accepted and forgiven
--- her classmates get on their knees and pray for her. Having
experienced an epiphany, Dymphna decides to join a monastery and
become a nun.

In "Saint Anne," a single mother tries and fails to juggle work and
motherhood. She ends up sleeping with her sleazy boss in order to
get time off. While she's having sex with the predatory boss, Saint
Anne (the patron saint of mothers) appears at the foot of her bed
and tells her to stop debasing herself. This story ends there.
  

In "The Patron Saint of Travelers," perhaps the finest story in
this fine collection, a group of young American women live together
in a run-down apartment in London. One of them, Jane, spends the
night with a rock and roll musician. When the musician drives her
home the morning after, he gives her a medallion of Saint
Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. This gesture, Jane
believes, gives meaning and importance to their otherwise random
sexual encounter. One of Jane's roommates, however, has been jilted
by her lover and jumps from the apartment window to her death. The
story shows how sex and love can be fraught with danger, how the
two can be confused and confounding.

In these 10 stories, all of them involving difficult moral
ambiguity, the protagonists try to find meaning in the seeming
randomness of modern life. The young women face tough choices and
suffer the consequences of their decisions, but they don't seem to
have a lot of options. None of them are saints, but the collection
makes us wonder if the detachment and asceticism of sainthood is
relevant to the modern world. The saints O'Connell describes get
involved --- they're not afraid of some heavy lifting in the realm
of morals. The intercession of the saints is a vehicle for bringing
moral guidance, a guidance no longer provided (it seems) by family,
community, or church organizations. Whether you're religious or
not, these stories resonate in their profound search for meaning. A
fine debut collection painting a morally complex world.

Reviewed by Chuck Leddy on January 22, 2011

Living With Saints
by Mary O'Connell

  • Publication Date: January 14, 2003
  • Genres: Short Stories
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802139264
  • ISBN-13: 9780802139269