Religion is a delicate subject. In fiction, it is typically handled in one of two ways: cloyingly sweet moralistic tales about the benefits of accepting God into one’s heart or sardonic warnings against putting one’s faith into the improbable.
In her novel “The Patron Saint of Ugly,” Marie Manilla strikes the balance between religious optimism and pessimism needed for a true work of magical realism that doesn’t preach or belittle. She explores religion, miracles and family ties without catering to believers over nonbelievers, or vice versa.
“The Patron Saint of Ugly” is told primarily through 21 transcripts of tapes recorded by Garnet Ferrari, a heavily birth-marked young woman with an unruly mane of shockingly red hair. In these tapes, Garnet answers questions posed by a Vatican committee for its investigation into her ability to heal skin ailments, which could qualify her for sainthood.
Although some of her relatives and hundreds of pilgrims who flock to her residence in the fictional Sweetwater, W.Va., believe in her powers, Garnet is not convinced. In her tapes, she relays to the committee her complex past of being ostracized by her peers and ignored by her father, whose attention she wanted more than anything.
Although Garnet seems to have the ability to heal others’ skin ailments – from stys to freckles to warts – her powers are inconsistent, and try as she might, she is unable to erase her own magically changing cartographic mulberry markings. Such a miracle might have allowed her acceptance by her peers and love from her father, and its refusal to arrive contributes to her deteriorating belief in religion and miracles.
The use of tape transcripts gives the novel a conversational quality. Through Garnet’s witty narrative, Ms. Manilla conveys an energy and a willingness to stretch the truth that is characteristic of oral accounts of history.
Because the story is told almost entirely from Garnet’s point of view, it conveys her version of history as the true one.
Despite this bias, Garnet is not the only character who the reader grows to understand, and even care for. Even some of the most despicable figures in Garnet’s life are made sympathetic as she reveals the intricate backstory that Ms. Manilla has woven.
Most of this sympathy derives from the tragic truth apparent in “The Patron Saint of Ugly”: No matter how much or how little affection one receives, the most valuable and desirable love that anyone can obtain is love from those who do not openly express it – or those who may not feel it at all. Despite the love of some of her other relatives, Garnet longs for affection from a father who is disgusted by her by virtue of her appearance.
Despite Garnet’s nonexistent relationship with her emotionally distant father, she is close with his mother, her Nonna, who has a familiarity with Old World magic and saints from her native Sicily, and she supports Garnet as best she can through her difficult early years and later in life.
A reader cannot help but notice that Ms. Manilla has dedicated her novel to her own Sicilian grandmother, “who has haunted [her throughout her] entire life.” Ms. Manilla’s tale of Garnet Ferrari and her healing powers (or lack thereof) is riddled with magic and miracles, making “The Patron Saint of Ugly” a perfect read for those wishing to escape reality.
Simultaneously, however, its dealings with family dynamics and religious devotion-versus-rejection make it true enough to life that the reader can forget about the improbably of magic, even if just for a split second.
Marie Manilla will be appearing at Del’s Bar & Ristorante, 4428 Liberty Ave. in Bloomfield for a book signing on July 19. Call 412-683-1448 for details.
Ivy Kuhrman is a freelance writer: IKuhrman@chatham.edu.