Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: "The Patron Saint of Ugly" by Marie Manilla

When stories come pouring out of the tiny town of Sweetwater, West Virginia, about the miraculous healing powers of Garnet Ferrari, the Vatican dispatches an investigator to determine the truth of the so-called saint.

Garnet herself denies all claim to sainthood or miracles, but she cannot deny that something strange has been happening all her life. From the day she was born with a birthmark of the world covering her entire body, she has been set apart, marveled over by superstitious grandmothers and reviled by her peers. Only her mother, a blue-blooded runaway from Virginia's highest society circles, is determined to adore her map-stained daughter.

The Vatican's investigation follows Garnet back through time to the miracles she performed and the ones she failed. Was there ever really a Santa Garnet del Vulcano before her, or is Garnet truly the rebirth of a long-lost Sicilian saint? It's a legend the world has never heard before, but one which in Garnet's memory has been told a hundred times and more. 

4.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Marie Manilla's The Patron Saint of Ugly is one of the first books I received in the Goodreads Giveaways. Out of all the drawings I entered, I'm very glad this was the time I got lucky. An attention-grabbing title, an unusual and intriguing premise, stellar cover art--my hopes were quite high. And they were not in vain.

The good news for you, dear reader, is that it took me so long to read the book--and write this review--that The Patron Saint of Ugly is now released for general circulation, and you can go pick up a copy wherever it is that the cool kids get their books nowadays. I recommend that you do so in the near future.
Once Mom and I were situated in her hospital room, a nurse brought the fam-i-ly to her. The mob rushed toward me, filled with anticipation. Mother's face bore an expression that must have hinted their hopes would be dashed. She peeled back the pink blanket to reveal a port-wine stain of a girl, flaming hair coning up like a volcano.
I imagine Mom looked for an escape, but she couldn't, so she held me toward them, tears of something in her eyes. "Isn't she beautiful? Isn't she absolutely beautiful?"
Perhaps it was hormones talking; more likely, those were the words of a desperate woman who couldn't fathom the monster she had knit together in her womb. But I was her monster, and if she didn't claim me, nobody would.
Manilla lays out her tale with symbolism that isn't subtle, but solid. Even on the first readthrough, I knew what to take away from the scene where Garnet finds pumice stones in her garden plot, her angelically perfect brother Nicky finds a smashed toy car, and their loathsome cousin Ray-Ray buries a dead bird. Nor must readers puzzle over the meaning of that one awful Christmas, which ended with Garnet's mother and grandmother fussing over the dolls each had given her: one a picture-perfect Barbie, one a hideously custom-painted Troll doll. You understand at once the family dynamics at play, and Garnet's ambivalence, and you flinch and move on--because, for a fairly small-scale story of family, The Patron Saint of Ugly is neither drifting nor slow-moving. The scenes whirl by in a vivid blur of color and passionate writing, and the pages never stop turning.

A small-scale story, I say, dealing with Garnet's immediate family and the suffocatingly isolated town where she grew up, but the size of the characters and the emotional span of the book spreads beyond those limited horizons. Garnet's recorded interviews with the Archbishop Dolan are interrupted by recordings made by her Sicilian nonna, the source of the Saint Garnet myth, without her grandchild's awareness. (Nonna's narrative voice is a delight to read, by the way.) Nonna's confessions bridge the gap between the Old World and the New, faith and superstitious magic.

Under the narrators' humorous commentary on caricatured family members and cultural schisms between the Sicilian immigrant community, the poor Irish Catholics of Sweetwater, and the blue-blooded Virginia aristocracy which produced Garnet's high-strung mother, the narrative follows the tracks of a very specific pain: that of hope denied.

The villains suffer it as much as the heroes. Garnet's pathetic longing for her father to adore her like Nicky is cast alongside her cruel grandfather's determination that his wife should, in time, want him as much as his brother, her first lover. Everyone wants something more from their family than can be given. How the characters come to terms with that idea is generally what determines heroism vs. villainy.
[After the funeral] our house became an old-timey luxury liner, the footing unsteady and slippery. The living room served as the upper-class deck, Grandma Iris in her windback receiving visitors in place of her daughter, accepting meringue pies and High Mass cards that I had to explain. The kitchen transformed into steerage, where Nonna heated up dishes that Grandpa Ferrari consumed. I became a porter navigating between these disparate worlds, bumbling around with trays loaded with coffee and biscotti and pain.
The book's weakness to me is how heavily it relies on doubling itself. Scenes are replayed, twenty years apart and starring a different cast, but with the same timeless words; family trees reduplicate themselves; each small act has a larger mirror, and vice versa. Of course, the mirroring is crucial to the mythic nature of Garnet's story. It just occurred once too often for my taste, veering past "mythic" and into "tidy."

On the other hand, as I crack open the book for a third time, I begin to consider how reliable either narrator is--Garnet or her grandmother--given how much is at stake for both of them if Garnet's sainthood is proven or disproven. Possibly the heavy-handed symbolism and conscious mirroring were crafted by the narrators on purpose to spin a better argument before their critics.

In the end, I don't need the author to tell me exactly whose fictional tale is true, or which parts may have been exaggerated to prove a point. I loved reading The Patron Saint of Ugly, and burned as much midnight oil on the second reading as on the first. It's a rich and memorable myth of broken families and the kind of miracles that do and do not make a difference in the world, well told by an author with a great gift for characters. I look forward to Marie Manilla's future books.
Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: child sexual assault, racism, racial slurs
, domestic violence, character deaths

I received a free advance copy of this book through the Goodreads Giveaway program for the purposes of reviewing. I received no money for writing this. 

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