Rose Clinton is a young married woman in Marina del Rey, California. Her husband Thomas is nice enough, but she doesn't love him and spends her days driving the roads of southern California in a futile effort to escape the tightness in her chest. When she discovers she is pregnant, she decides to run away, heading for St. Elizabeth's, a home for unwed mothers near Habit, Kentucky. Rose immediately bonds with elderly Sister Evangeline, who is in charge of the kitchen at St. Elizabeth's but isn't much of a cook. As her due date approaches, Rose decides to keep her baby and marries the handyman, Son, because she believes her marriage will convince the nuns to let her keep the baby and give her a reason to stay at St. Elizabeth's. (And, yes, she is still married to Thomas.) She stays 15 years, tending to Sister Evangeline, cooking for the girls and nuns at St. Elizabeth's, and largely ignoring her husband and daughter Cecelia. Despite the fact that the first section of the book is told from Rose's perspective, she remains an enigma.
The second section of the book is told from Son's perspective. Son is 45 when he marries Rose, but we learn how he came to St. Elizabeth's as a young man, following a career in the Army that ended with an accident in basic training and a romance that ended tragically. He immediately loves Rose's daughter Cecilia and commits to the role of loving father. While he loves Rose, he doesn't understand her and realizes he may someday lose her; he can face this loss, but the idea of losing Cecilia. The last section of the book is the teenage Cecilia's, and we struggle with her as she tries to figure out why her mother is so distant. The return of Thomas Clinton sends Rose running again, causing pain to Thomas, Son, Cecilia, and Sister Evangeline.
Rose is not a particularly sympathetic character because we understand so little of her motivation or her feelings and she hurts Son and Cecilia, much more engaging and understandable characters who carry the book. The Patron Saint of Liars is Ann Patchett's first novel, and it lacks the depth and complexity of her later works. This was my second reading of the book, and I liked it better the first time I read it--Rose's penchant for making bad decisions that cause suffering for others and for running away seemed less mysterious and more despicable upon this reading. And Patchett's writing, while certainly skilled, entertains but does not yet transport the reader. Still, I think The Patron Saint of Liars is worth reading.
People tell me things you wouldn't believe. It's like there's a sign over my head: CONFIDE HERE.