Marie Manilla, The Patron Saint of Ugly

Publisher: Mariner Books

2014, 334 pages, paperback, $14

ALL THE WORLD is built on myth. My family creates stories that cast our members as heroes, fools, and angels. What family does not possess at least one member who can layer time and words and characters to hew together a mythology that at once records and foretells, establishes the mundane and the extraordinary, punishes and forgives? Marie Manilla has crafted a rich and complex novel about how we use narrative across community and generations. The Patron Saint of Ugly is about the way we construct understanding and belief.

An emissary from the Vatican has requested that Garnet Ferrari record her story so that investigators can better evaluate her candidacy for sainthood. She agrees, reluctantly, hoping that she will be left in peace; it’s hard to live with pilgrims holding a vigil outside your house. The descendant of recent Italian immigrants on her father’s side and of the Mayflower Caudhills on her mother’s, Garnet was born with a map of the globe on her skin and is fabled to be a holy healer of skin maladies. Manilla combines comedy, tragedy, myth, magic, whimsy, and water to grow her story into one of deep and delightful proportions.

The epistolary novel allows Garnet to tell her story to the Vatican through tape-recordings. Fortunately for us, Garnet’s Nonna and her Aunt Betty are able to steal the recorder on occasion to have their say as well. Garnet believes her paternal grandmother, Nonna, brought the myth of Saint Garnet del Vulcano to the Irish-Italian village of Sweetwater, West Virginia, so as to create a story that would allow the 1960s working-class community to accept little Garnet and her remarkable skin.

Garnet is a hard sell on her own sainthood, or anyone else’s for that matter:

           You want the legend of Saint Garnet del Vulcano—my supposed predecessor—so

           I’ll oblige. I was weaned on that baloney even before my umbilical nub withered,
           and for many years I believed it. In all my phone calls and letters to the Catholic
           saint societies and Sicilian-lore collectors, no one has been able to verify or
           disprove Saint Garnet’s existence. I would think one of you Roman padres could
           hobble down the boot, pole-vault over to Sicily, and find out once and for all.
           Though yesterday I got a letter from a lady in Palermo who claims to be a
           descendant of the original Garnet and thus a long-lost cousin of mine. She wanted
           five thousand bucks for a down payment on a Rolls-Royce. I did not oblige.

The authentic voice and dry wit that Garnet maintains throughout the novel lures the reader into a world where magic and serendipitous fortune hold hands with sadness, guilt, and family tragedy. Manilla doesn’t hide from harshness in the tall grass of whimsy. There are deep, dark woods in Sweetwater and in Garnet’s own family. Secrets and sadness of such breadth are revealed that we, like Garnet, must hold on to the miracles so we know that there is light in the world. The evolving mythology of Saint Garnet, Sweetwater, the Ferarri and Caudhill families, and Garnet herself work to create an acceptance of loss, guilt, sainthood, and miracles.

There is not a scene rendered that is pale or slim on visual imagery. Each place and talisman is depicted with a vivid sense of color and emotion. Garnet’s story takes her from humble houses to grand mansions, and Manilla shows them all to us with detail and a palette customized to evoke mood and emotion:

           I was not surprised that Grandfather Postscript had his own section of the house, four
           rooms in a row. The first was the mother of all globe rooms, where pieces from my
           collection had already been reshelved. The second was a library with Nicky’s
           Britannicas stacked in a corner. The third was a study with a massive desk and walls
           completely covered with cocktail napkins, dry-cleaner receipts, matchbook covers,
           ticker tape, pages ripped from ledgers, all scribbled with phrases like fly-fish the queen
           and succumb to the lowly collier. I remember thinking: Uh-oh.

No matter how sad, wry, or bitter Garnet may be in certain moments, she welcomes the reader and shares her world honestly and unflinchingly. In Garnet’s storytelling, as in most family mythology, symbols and themes are pulled madly together. The world exists in binary, but nothing is so simple as black and white. In her mother’s eyes, her father grows and shrinks as he alternately stands up against his father or cedes to his bullying. Dueling grandmothers offer the best protection they know how to give in a harsh world made up of the perfect and the damned. Throughout it all, water flows from the springs of Sweetwater, bringing death, redemption, and mystery.

Manilla knows the difference between trope and stereotype, and she deploys the former to great effect; she knows when to let light win against dark and when dark must win so we retain our faith in authenticity. Garnet isn’t perfect, and the characters of her world rainbow from evil to pure. They are as human as the fragments of our souls that we embed in stories.

—Michaela Hansen