Two sharply written, genuinely shocking stories and one fine mood piece stand out in a debut collection relentlessly wedded to its theme: the parallels between Catholic saints and modern young women.
O’Connell (or her editor) had the good sense to open with the strongest material. “Saint Dymphna” crackles with the smart-ass, vaguely profane talk of 17-year-old girls desperately trying to conceal their vulnerability. High-school student Dymphna has just discovered she’s pregnant after a one-night stand. She has plans beyond single motherhood and decides reluctantly but firmly on an abortion. The surreal ritual of racing for the clinic doors through protestors waving pictures of fetuses is impeccably described, and the denouement blasts self-righteous cruelty by contrasting it with the genuine compassion of Sister Josepha, one of Dymphna’s teachers. “Sister Ursula with her Maidens” is almost as powerful in its delineation of five women with debilitating chronic diseases joking away their anguish during hydrotherapy. And “Saint Therese of Lisieux” finds new ways to convey the horror of incest, showing the rage and guilt that simmer beneath the assured surface of gorgeous A-student Kendra Murphy, imprisoned in the home of her catastrophically depressed mother and the embraces of her father by her love for her two toddler siblings. In these three tales, the religious similes are striking and subtle, particularly the revelation that Saint Dymphna gained the ability to see into another’s soul during her martyrdom. But the metaphor becomes forced in the less accomplished work that follows, especially in a labored monologue in a tattoo parlor and a bumpy tale of jittery American girls in London. O’Connell writes superb dialogue, a bracing mix of modern vernacular and eternal spiritual longings that nearly salvages “The Patron Saint of Girls,” but she’s been led astray by the currently trendy notion that a story collection must have a unifying principal—“conceit” would be a more accurate word in the weaker pieces.
Sunk by its overly schematic concept, but O’Connell is a talent to watch.