The Irish-American family novel has a lot of familiar tropes – resentments, feuding, alcoholism, unexpected pregnancy, Catholicism, generation gaps, poverty to prosperity, et al. Sullivan (no known relation to yours truly) employs them all, but her great gift in writing is characterization. The novel is set over a few days in 2009 after the death of the eldest child in the Rafferty family, the 50-year-old bar owner Patrick, in a drunk driving crash. The family comes together for the wake and funeral with the unexpected arrival of an elderly nun unknown to the children of the family. In-between descriptions of the few days leading up to the funeral the novel flashes back to fill in the family history, starting with the sisters Nora and Theresa leaving their Irish village to emigrate to Boston, and how Nora takes the conventional course of marrying and raising four children, first in Dorchester, and later in Hull, Massachusetts, while Theresa becomes a cloistered nun. It also explains the falling out to the two sisters and why the children grew up unaware of Theresa’s existence. Nora and Theresa alternate as point of view characters with wonderful insight into their complex characters. The reader also gets to learn of the each of the surviving children, John the overachiever who found unexpected success as a political adviser to Republicans in deep blue Massachusetts (including a thinly-veiled Mitt Romney character), Bridget who is never quite sure that Nora has accepted her as lesbian but wishes to inform her mother of her and partner’s plan to have a baby, and Brian, the youngest who has moved back in with his mother and seems directionless after his baseball career flamed out in the minor leagues. It’s a touching and heartbreaking novel, and not quite all that you’d expect.
“She had long known that in this family, the truth got revealed belatedly, accidentally, drunkenly, or not at all. But still, she felt hurt.”