Fiction — audiobook. Read by Euan Morton. Macmillan Audio, 2017. 8 hours, 7 minutes. Purchased.
Determined to prove that his life belongs to him and only him, a married Irish immigrant by the name of Jim disconnects the gas hose to this stove and commits suicide. When his pregnant wife, Annie, returns to find the apartment barracked, she conscripts a neighbor into helping her force open the door. The subsequent explosion that occurs when the neighbor lights a match attracts the attention of the police, neighbors, and a passing nun by the name of Sister St. Savior.
As a member of the Little Sister of the Sick Poor, Sister St. Savior is dedicated to serving as a nurse for the poor in this section of Brooklyn (think Nonnatus House from “Call the Midwife”), and she and the other sisters of her order take on responsibility for aiding Annie in her grief, in the birth of her child, and in her life as a young widow and single mother to her daughter, Sally.
The Sisters arrange for Annie to form a friendship with another young mother — a Mrs. Tierney, who has a baby in her pram and another one expected soon — in the area , although Sister Jeanne quickly becomes a friend of Annie in her own right. Sister Immaculata works along side Annie in the convent’s washroom, and Sister Lucy offers a dose of realism as the novel advances to the point in life where Sally decides she has been called to join the Order herself.
As I’m sure most book clubs do, mine always beings with asking each person if they liked the book. I had a hard time falling into the binary, yes-or-no answer with McDermott’s novel. I liked her writing style; I felt she really evoked the complicated mixture of sympathy and frustration that comes with caring for someone who will not care for themselves. (For those who have seen “Call the Midwife”, Sister Lucy in McDermott’s novel reminded me of Sister Evangelina.)
Yet while I thought the writing style was superb, the book never quite pulled me in. It was only after I made the switch from print to audiobook — and had the deadline for my book club’s meeting looming — that I felt I could move past the first fifty pages. And when I did, when I started to appreciate her writing style, I never lost the feeling that I had to get through the book rather than wanted to. A good book — good enough that I’m curious to check out McDermott’s other novels — but not a great book.
On the topic of the audiobook, I was surprised to find that a male had been chosen to serve as the narrator. The novel seemed to be so centered on the lives of Catholic women — women who live out the teachings of the Church among the nuns who see what a scorn of divorce and a delivery of a baby every year does to them — that it took me a moment to adjust my expectations. To accept that the producers of the audiobook had decided to assign a male gender to the unnamed, un-gendered adult recounting the story of these women and the secrets they hold.
Having reached the end of the audiobook (and without giving away spoilers), I can see why the decision to go with a male narrator was made, although multiple women in my book club still expressed surprise when I told them who the narrator was. And, personally, I had no complaints with Morton’s narration. Like the source material, it was good but not great.