A home for unwed mothers and a traveling circus: both offer rich opportunities for varied characters and compelling stories. Turn back the clock to the mid-nineteenth century, add young parents who have lost three children to a freak hundred-year wave, mix in an order of progressive nuns who run the home, and flavor with a legend about a submerged island. Set the novel on the Friesian coast of the Netherlands, “by the edge of the Nordsee” (North Sea) and salt it with Dutch words, foods, and phrases: Mutti and Vati; Bratkartoffeln mit Speck; Mein lieber, lieber Junge (Mommy and Daddy; fried potatoes with bacon; my dear, dear boy.)
All these ingredients might cause a plot to boil over. But, in the hands of Ursula Hegi, The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls is artfully arranged and imaginatively rewarding.
To be honest: if I’d known that a circus was at the heart of this book, I might have given it a pass. I’ve read Water for Elephants and circus-adjacent books such as Swamplandia and The Museum of Extraordinary Things; fine books, but I believe I’ve met my circus-reading quotient. (I’m not in the least tempted to read, for example, The Night Circus, no matter how many recommendations.)
A troupe of ready-made, unconventional characters (atypically tall, short, fat, or thin; reckless daredevils; lost souls; animal lovers or haters; starry-eyed dreamers, etc.) can feel like a pre-fab scaffolding on which to hang a novel. (That being said, Stewart O’Nan’s nonfiction The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy, published in 2000, is one of the most haunting books I’ve ever read—and may be exactly why I don’t find much circus fiction compelling.) However, by the time I realized that a Zirkus was integral to Hegi’s plot, round about page 5, I was already invested in Lotte and Kalle’s story of memory and loss.
Lotte, the bereaved mother, “is afraid of forgetting her children’s faces, their smells, the texture of their hair. That’s why she has to climb deeper into her grief. Like picking a scab. Below is still the wound, but it doesn’t bleed as much.” Kalle, the father, holds a dwarf foundling to his chest, aches for his absent children, and thinks, “From now on I am part of your story . . . and you of mine.”
The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls is a village book: the story of one couple’s tragedy as experienced by their community, by the girls’ home that is and yet is not a part of the village, and by the circus people who visit every year. The “Old Women” who serve as the village chorus. A beekeeper “like a god who will go beneath the sea to bring back your children.” A teen mother who nurses Lotte and Kalle’s surviving baby when Lotte cannot. A nun and a priest who have loved each other for decades, having only touched each other’s wrists. An aging ringmaster and his devoted son. An accomplished cellist with the mind of a child.
Spending time with these imaginary people and their joys, sorrows, secrets, and pleasures was time well spent: on the one hand, an opportunity to slip away into their story (a chief pleasure of reading fiction, after all); on the other, an opportunity to reflect on how grief can alter our reality and how the presence and comfort of others can help us process that grief.