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What We’re Reading: Lives of the Saints

Post by Elizabeth Coleman
Posted June 25, 2014 in Readers' Advisory News

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Lives of the Saints

by Nancy Lemann

What is it about?
Nancy Lemann's Lives of the Saints evokes the decaying magnificence of old New Orleans society in the later years of the twentieth century.  Doddering eccentrics and wastrel youths move leisurely through the balmy, softly-drunken haze of their lives, even as reality cruelly encroaches.  Louise Brown, the narrator, has recently returned to the South and sees everything with a slightly more discerning eye.  But she paints a kind picture of all she meets, from her beloved Claude Collier, who always has a drink in hand, to Mary Grace, newly-wedded and prone to breakdowns. Louise attends parties, eats good food, explores the city and its environs, and proves a pillar of support when disaster strikes.  At its most basic, Lives of the Saints is about people, specifically Southerners, and how they relate to each other and to tragedy. 

Why I like it: 
In gorgeous prose, Lemann captures a New Orleans that no longer exists. She uses grammatical tricks like unusual capitalization to enforce her words, to wit: Weird Depression, Hysterical Fit, Moral Qualms. As in many other works of Southern literature, I felt that I had met each of the characters at one point or another in my life. And as a former New Orleanian, I appreciate Lemann's great feel for the place.  She ably illustrates the city's quirks and all the little things that make it unique, from the seemingly never-ending parties to the streets with names like Indulgence and Desire.  Lives of the Saints is poignant and nostalgic, but also hilarious.  With biting wit, Lemann lays bare the foibles of New Orleans society. 

"I'd recommend this book to…"
Anyone who enjoys Southern literature.

Memorable quote:

“In the Garden District, Claude stopped and pointed out the jasmine and the cicadas in the night. That was his innocence to me.  He had the sweetness of the town itself and broke my heart completely into a million pieces on the floor, as he himself would say, for he touched my heart, to such degree, that I had to steel myself, or my heart would break, like his, into a million pieces on the floor.”

Recommended by Elizabeth Coleman, Cataloger at NoveList.