By life's midpoint Emily has seen three husbands, dozens of friends, and hundreds of students come and go. And now her classroom, long her refuge, is proving to be anything but.
Though her popular, occasionally irreverent church history course is rich with stories of long-dead saints, Emily uneasily discovers that it's her own tumultuous life that fascinates certain students most. She in turn finds herself drawn into their world, their secrets, and the fateful choices they make.
A novel of mystery and illumination, calling and choice, All Saints explores lives lived in a fragile sanctuary-from Emily and her many saints to a priest facing his own mortality and a teenager tormented by desire. Told with grace and compassion, this is a spellbinding novel of provocative storytelling.
A rarified Southern California Catholic high school serves as the setting for thrice-divorced, 50-year-old Emily Hamilton's reckoning in Callanan's oddly luminous novel (following The Cloud Atlas). A teacher who finds her life intertwined with three of her students', Emily revisits relevant stages of her past (nicely interspersing an abundant knowledge of saints' lives) as she gets around to telling how she kissed Edgar Mandeville, an upstart student in her church history class (dubbed "Saints and Sinners" by everyone, including Emily herself). Refreshing insights into teenage angst (including secondaries such as the sexually confused Paul, the aforementioned Edgar and the shy but longing Cecily) are matched by midlife crisis candor-including that of irreverent department chair Fr. Martin Dimanche, with whom Emily has an ambivalent relationship. Emily herself has been struggling for personal redemption for nearly four decades: her teenage pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage are just the beginning. The book's stark events are handled while retaining sympathy for Emily: no mean feat. Callanan gets into her head with page-turning panache and authority. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 26, 2007
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Excerpt from All Saints by Liam Callanan
I am named for virgins.
Four, actually: three saints and another woman whose canonization has stalled.
Saint Emiliana, aunt to a pope, died in the sixth century, never having left her father's house. Saint Emily de Vialar didn't leave her father's house until she was thirty-five, when she received a large inheritance from her grandfather, which she promptly put to use founding an order of nuns. Saint Emily de Rodat devoted her life to teaching poor children and caring for what her biographers unfailingly call "unfortunate women." And when the Blessed Emily Bicchieri (beatified in 1769, she, like me, is still awaiting promotion to full sainthood) learned that Dad was planning a big wedding for her, she said no: no, take all that money and build me a convent, please. Which he did and which she entered and there she died, forty years later. On her birthday. A virgin.
So it's really no surprise, then, that tradition holds Emily is the patron saint of single women.
And no surprise, an Emily, I'm single.
And maybe it's no surprise that in the fiftieth year of my life, thirty-four years after leaving my father's house, ten years into a career of teaching children who were, on the whole, quite fortunate, I did something I had never, ever done before.
I kissed a boy.
When I die, a bell will ring. Mrs. Ramirez told me this over coffee, after mass. Mrs. Ramirez, half my height, twice my age. She also told me that she was part Gypsy. That she could see the future. That if I gave her twenty-five dollars she would tell me my fortune, and Father-she was referring to the visiting priest, young, who'd somehow used the Gospel of the prodigal son to spark a homily against MTV, despite the fact that the average age of the congregation (excluding me) was roughly 105, and that we all stood about as much chance of falling prey to music videos as dogs do to being bewitched by Mozart-anyway, Mrs. Ramirez said Father wouldn't disapprove of my visiting with her, paying her, because what she does isn't black magic, but white magic, and Jesus Himself sometimes sits with her in the room, and wouldn't I like to meet Jesus?
Met him, I told her.
Mrs. Ramirez sipped at her coffee, crinkling her face into the cup.
He was awfully nice, I went on, because I was sick of Mrs. Ramirez buttonholing me every Sunday with her sales pitch, and I was even more sick of the fact that death was always part of the pitch. She was forever telling me what would happen when I died. An eclipse, a torrential rain, a dog would bark. And now, a bell. Why couldn't it ever be sunny and 70, and me inside the pretty hospital, slipping away to the peaceful hum of impotent machines?
Besides, what more do I need to know? I asked her. You already told me, a bell will ring.
Mrs. Ramirez lowered her coffee, looked around, looked at me, and spoke.
For twenty-five dollars, she said, I tell you when.
The good news: to know my life in full, you need not consult Mrs. Ramirez. Rather, simply sit with me the day one of my students brought a corpse to class and made his classmates laugh.
I'm exaggerating, but not much, and not about the laughter. They laughed: that's what riled me the most. Not that half of them had come into class late-including the young man then giving his oral report-nor that all of them, the girls especially, would take our admonition to "dress up" for Friday's special mass as license to dress like novice sex workers, nor even that that morning, of all mornings, I was being observed by the department chair.