The Patron Saint of Liars

The Patron Saint of Liars

by Ann Patchett


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The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

In 1992, celebrated novelist Ann Patchett launched her remarkable career with the publication of her debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. On this 25th anniversary, read the best-selling book that is "beautifully written . . . a first novel that second- and third-time novelists would envy for its grace, insight, and compassion" (Boston Herald).

St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in Habit, Kentucky, usually harbors its residents for only a little while. Not so Rose Clinton, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed, and stays. She plans to give up her child, thinking she cannot be the mother it needs. But when Cecilia is born, Rose makes a place for herself and her daughter amid St. Elizabeth’s extended family of nuns and an ever-changing collection of pregnant teenage girls. Rose’s past won’t be kept away, though, even by St. Elizabeth’s; she cannot remain untouched by what she has left behind, even as she cannot change who she has become in the leaving.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547520209
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/19/2011
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 93,103
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ANN PATCHETT is the author of seven novels: The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder, and Commonwealth. She was the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006, and has written three books of nonfiction–Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, What Now? an expansion of her graduation address at Sarah Lawrence College, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of essays examining the theme of commitment.


Nashville, Tennessee

Date of Birth:

December 2, 1963

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1987

Read an Excerpt


Two o’clock in the morning, a Thursday morning, the
first bit of water broke through the ground of George Clatterbuck’s
back pasture in Habit, Kentucky, and not a living soul saw
it. Spring didn’t care. Water never needed anyone’s help to come
up through the ground once it was ready. There are rivers, hundreds
of them, running underground all the time, and because of
this a man can say he is walking on water. This was a hot spring
that had broken loose of its river to make mud in the grass, and it
kept on till it was a clear pool and then a little creek, cutting out
a snake’s path toward the Panther River. Water will always seek
out its own.
 George Clatterbuck found it when it was already a pretty
steady stream. It was only fitting that he should be the one, seeing
as how it was his land. It was 1906. He was hunting for his
family’s dinner. He smelled the spring before he saw it, foul and
sulfurous as spoiled eggs. He thought it was a bad sign, that it
meant his land was infected and spitting up bile for relief. The
water was warm when he dipped in his hand, and he wiped it off
against the leg of his trousers. He was thinking about it, thinking
what he ought to do, when he saw a rabbit on the other
side of the field. It was as big a buck as he’d seen, and he knelt
down slowly to get off his shot. He had to shoot on his knees.
His father taught him that way because he was afraid the rifle’s
kick would knock the boy off his feet, thought George would
be safer close to the ground. But since that was the way George
learned, that was the only way he could ever do it, and now here
he was, grown with a family, going down on his knees like a man
in prayer to shoot a rabbit.
 He blew the head clean off and didn’t disturb the pelt. He
thought he would tan the hide and give it to his daughter, June,
for her birthday. June, like many little girls, was partial to soft
things. By the time he’d tied the legs onto his belt he’d forgotten
about the water altogether.
 It wasn’t long after that times turned hard for the Clatterbucks.
Both plow horses came down with colic, and Betsy, the
horse George rode to town, got a ringworm thick as your thumb
that no amount of gentian violet could clear. Not a week after,
every last one of his cows came down with mastitis that left them
all drier than bones. George had to get up every three hours in
the night and bottle-feed the calves, whose crying put his wife
beside herself. “Sounds like a dying child,” she said, and she shivered.
George didn’t say this to her, but he was thinking he might
have to slaughter the calves and take his losses. Bought milk was
more than he could afford.
 Then, if he didn’t have enough to worry about, the horses
broke free of the corral. George took some rope and set out to
bring them back, cursing the rain and the mud and the stupid
animals with every step. He found them at that spring he had
forgotten, drinking so deeply he thought they’d founder. He
was frightened then because he thought such water would kill
them, and where would the money come from to buy three new
horses? But the horses were fine. Betsy’s hide was smooth where
the ringworm had been and the other two were past their own
disorder. George knew it was the spring that had done this, but
he didn’t know if it was the work of the Devil or the Lord. He
didn’t tell a soul when he drove his sick cows down to the water,
but by the time they came home their udders were so full they
looked like they might burst on the ground.
 Then little June took sick and laid in her bed like a dull penny.
Doctor came from Owensboro and said it wasn’t the pox or scarlet
fever, but something else that was burning her alive. She was
slipping away so fast you could all but see her dying right before
your eyes, and there sat her parents, not a thing in the world
to do.
 So George goes out in the middle of the night with a mason
jar. He walks in the dark to the spring, fills up the jar, and heads
home. He goes to his daughter’s room and looks at her pale face.
He prays. He takes the first drink of water for himself, thinking
that if it was to kill her he’d best die, too. It is foul-tasting, worse
even than the smell of it. He lifts up June’s head from her sweaty
pillow and pours the water down her throat, the whole jarful. He
only lets a little run down the sides of her face. He wonders for a
moment what it would be like to feed a child from his own body
as his wife had done, but the thought embarrasses him and he
lets it go. The next morning June is fine, perfect, better than new.
 When the spring had saved his livestock, George kept it to
himself, not wanting to look foolish, but when it saved his
daughter he felt the call to witness. He went into the streets of
Habit and told what he had seen. At first the people were slow
in believing, but as hardships came to them and they went to the
spring for help, all was proved true.
 Tales of what had happened spread by word of mouth and before
long people were coming up from as far away as Mississippi.
The truth was stretched out of shape through all the telling, and
soon the lame showed up wanting to walk and the blind wanting
to see. The spring can’t do everything, the townspeople said. It’s
wrong to expect so much.
 And then one boy died right there at the water’s edge. He was
that sick by the time his folks brought him. He’s buried in Habit
now, two hundred miles away from his own kind.
 One of the people who got word of the spring was a horse
breeder named Lewis Nelson, who lived in Lexington. Lewis’
wife, Louisa, had rheumatoid arthritis and her hands froze up on
her even though she was only twenty-two. They set off to Habit
to see if the water couldn’t do her some good. The Nelsons were
rich, and when they came to town they were looking for a hotel,
but there wasn’t one. George had made a vow to never make a
cent off the spring, and Habit said that was only fitting. So when
visitors came they were taken in with charity, many times by the
Clatterbucks themselves. This put the Nelsons ill at ease, since
they were used to giving charity and not receiving it.
 June was seventeen that summer. She had grown up as well as
she had started out. She was a kind of a saint in the town, the first
one saved by the spring, but all that really meant to June was that
there were few boys bold enough to ask her out, and the ones
who did thought it would be a sin to try and kiss her. She gave up
her room for Mr. and Mrs. Nelson and slept on the sofa downstairs.
 After her second trip to the spring the use of Louisa’s hands
came back to her and she taught June how to cross-stitch. Her
husband was full of joy. Lewis was a devout Catholic with a head
for figures. He saw the hand of God in the spring and thought
the thing to do would be to build a grand hotel in the back pasture.
No one was ever sure how he changed George Clatterbuck’s
mind, but probably it was by telling him that a lot more people
could be saved if there was a bigger place to stay and that George
was being unchristian by denying them. It’s easy to imagine that
Lewis had seen how well the hot-springs hotels had done in Arkansas
and Tennessee and knew there was some real money to
be made. Not long after that the architects came with their silver
mechanical pencils, and after them the builders and the gardeners.
In 1920 the Hotel Louisa opened its doors. They’d wanted to
call it the Hotel June, but June, afraid of scaring off the few dates
she had left, said thank you, no.
 When the roses on the wallpaper were still in their first bloom
and the carpet was soft and springy beneath your feet, there
wasn’t a hotel in the South that could match the Hotel Louisa.
People came from Atlanta and Chicago and New Orleans,
some to be healed but most to play tennis on the grass courts
and dance in the fancy ballroom. Lewis sent for his collection of
horse prints in Lexington, and Louisa picked out velvet to cover
the settees for the lobby. There were two formal dining rooms
where people ate with real silver and drank champagne smuggled
down from Canada. At five o’clock everyone went out and
stood on the front porch to drink bourbon and soda. No one
from Habit ever went inside after the opening day. It made them
feel like they weren’t quite good enough. Even the Clatterbucks,
who were supposed to be partners in everything, kept to the
other side of the woods. You couldn’t see their house, not even
from the third-floor rooms. The guests never knew they had ever
been there at all.

The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the great drought
that came over the land were so close together that it was hard to
separate one from the other. Everything was coming to an end,
and the spring would not except itself. Maybe there was a reason
for it, that things got so hot that even the water underneath
the ground felt the pull of the dry air. In no time it went from a
trickle to a strip of mud and then not even that. But whatever it
was, the town of Habit took its leaving as a sign, just as they had
taken its arrival.
 For the spring this was no hardship. It was just going back,
folding into one of those underground rivers. It would break
through later, years from then, someplace else. Next time people
might not be around for miles. It was very possible that no one
would ever drink from it at all.
 Not long after all this, people stopped going to the hotel,
though it would be hard to say if it was because of the spring or
because they were the kind of people who had kept their money
in banks. June used to walk across the field in the evenings and
look at the place in the ground where her salvation had come
from. She saw men in suits and women in silk dresses carrying
out their own bags and taking hired cars north to catch trains.
 The Nelsons tried for a long time to get the water to come
back. They hired people who said they knew how to coax it out
of the ground. But the spring was long gone by then. They stayed
on in the hotel alone until the middle thirties, hardly coming out
for anything. You could trail them as they moved from room to
room, one light going off and another one coming on. People
said they could set their watch by what window was bright at the
time. Then one day the Nelsons packed up and left without saying
 Word came soon after that the Nelsons had made a gift of the
Hotel Louisa to the Catholic Church, and this put the fear of
God in everyone. It was one thing to have rich people in your
pasture, but when the Clatterbucks thought of Catholics, they
saw statues of the Virgin Mary going up in the yard, ten feet high.
The Clatterbucks could have kept the Catholics off, since they
owned the land, but nobody told them that. When the lawyers
came and knocked on their door, there was nothing for them to
do but look at the ground and shake their heads. A few weeks
later two buses pulled up, and a group of little old women in
white dresses were led or carried up the front stairs. The church
had changed the name of the Hotel Louisa to Saint Elizabeth’s
and turned it into a rest home for old nuns.
 But the nuns were miserable. They’d been dirt poor all their
lives, following the word of their church. The idea of spending
their final days in an abandoned grand hotel made them restless.
Soon the tiny women started wandering over to the Clatterbucks’
in their bathrobes, searching out a simpler way of life.
The Clatterbucks, good Baptists every day of their lives, took
pity on the old Catholics and overcame their fears. They served
them platters of fried mush with sorghum, which were received
with heartfelt prayers and thanks. It made the family feel needed
again; the old women’s dependence called to mind the early days
of the spring when the sick were healed. They thought that God
had seen again what was best.
 But the church did not agree, and two years later the buses returned
and took the nuns to Ohio. Mrs. Clatterbuck cried when
they left, and June touched the medal around her neck of Saint
Catherine of Siena that Sister Estelle had given her. She wore it
all her life.
 The Hotel Louisa was getting worn, fretwork slipped from
the porch, shutters hung down. In any other town it would have
been ransacked, people breaking out windows and carrying off
furniture in the night. But the people of Habit were true to their
name and just kept on avoiding the old hotel like they did in the
days when they wouldn’t have had the right clothes to go inside
for a cup of coffee.
 The Clatterbucks waited and watched. Then one day a station
wagon pulled up the front drive and two nuns, dressed in
what looked to be white bed sheets, and five big-bellied girls got
out. June and her mother were just coming through the woods at
the time, out for their daily walk.
 The nuns cut across the dried creek bed, not knowing a thing.
They didn’t know how the hotel had come to be or that they
were standing on top of what might have been the closest thing
to a real miracle that any of them was ever going to see. They
were occupied, unloading the car.
 “Pregnant girls,” Mrs. Clatterbuck said. “They’ve gone and
made it into a home for pregnant girls.”

Reading Group Guide


In The Patron Saint of Liars, Rose is a young wife of three years who concludes she married by mistake, that she misinterpreted teenage lust as a sign from God. Newly pregnant and unable to continue a life with a man she doesn't love, Rose decides to leave. She abandons her quiet, inoffensive husband and their life at the southern California seaside of the 1960s.

Rose plots to give up the baby for adoption, never telling her husband. And to punish herself, she will also give up the mother she adores, the one person she really loves. Leaving without notice, she drives east to Kentucky and soon realizes that any new life will be a deception and she will be a liar for the rest of her life.

Rose's destination is the sanctuary of St. Elizabeth's Home for Unwed Mothers in Habit, Kentucky. St. Elizabeth's is a refuge but also a place of liars and "leavers," for all of the girls who come will leave, and most will lie about where they've been and what has happened. Unlike the other young women, Rose is married but chooses to tell no one. She plans to wait out her pregnancy, give over the baby to adoption, and then move on.

But St. Elizabeth's keeps Rose for years. In the once elegant Hotel Louisa, the home is near the site of a healing spring run dry, a spring that still exerts a little magic. Rose learns to cook for the girls who come and go and befriends the saintly Sister Evangeline, who knows people's troubles and sees their futures.

Rose decides to keep her baby and marries Son, the groundskeeper, and once again begins a small life with a man she doesn't love. Her daughter Cecelia, or Sissy, grows up at St. Elizabeth's among the nuns, a devoted father, and successive waves of unwed mothers. Sissy longs for her mother's love and attention and wonders about her past.

Most of the odd and troubled characters fascinate and confound us. In the end, Rose surprises us one more time, and Sissy grows up, showing herself neither a liar nor a "leaver."

Discussion Questions

  1. In The Patron Saint of Liars, the author uses the voices of Rose, Son, and Cecelia (Sissy) to tell the story. How does each voice reveal a distinct and unique character? Is each voice believable? What are the advantages or disadvantages to building a novel through multiple voices?

  2. Discuss the many references to "leaving," to breaking connections to home, family, and responsibilities. Who are the "leavers" and who are the ones left? Can you find evidence of what Rose, Son, and Sissy think about all the leaving? Finally, who turns out to be a "stayer," and why is that important?

  3. When first pregnant, Rose looks for a place "where women had babies and left them behind, like pieces of furniture too heavy to move." Does her concept of a child evolve during her drive to Kentucky, upon her arrival at St. Elizabeth's, and during the months before her delivery? Is there evidence of a changing attitude after Cecelia is born?

  4. Beginning with Rose's first lie of omission, discuss the lies and liars in the novel. Relate the last lie, Son's lie to Sissy, to the structure of the novel and to the cycle of lies. You might ask, "Are all lies equal?"

  5. Contrast the picture of southern California with that of St. Elizabeth's in Habit, Kentucky. How does the author achieve the sense of place? Is one place more real than the other? Is one more allegorical?

  6. How does the author use the search for signs to move the story forward? Compare Rose's sign to marry with her sign to keep her baby. What about Lorraine's sign? Do you prefer to read the signs as messages from an external source or as the subconscious wishes of the characters? Are Son's tattoos signs of a different sort?

  7. Describe the mother/daughter relationship between Rose and her mother. Is there evidence that Rose's mother is a good and loving mother? How is the relationship Rose has with Cecelia different, and why?

  8. "Driving is the most important thing you can learn," Rose tells Sissy. "It's the secret of the universe." Explain Rose's impulse to drive. How has it been important to her, and why should she recommend it to Sissy? Does it relate to depression, escape, pilgrimage, or something else?

  9. Rose tells us, "I have always taken names very seriously, people or places." How does the author use names to enrich the novel? Consider the names St. Elizabeth, Habit, Rose, Son, among others. What do you think about the controversy over Cecelia as a name? Do you know Rose's mother's name? -- who uses it and who does not?

  10. Discuss Sister Evangeline. Can you make a case that she is the model for motherhood? Think about her relationship to St. Elizabeth's, to Rose, to the girls who come and go, to the unborn, to her own mother. Is it significant that she is a seer? That her hands bleed?

  11. Describe Sissy's evolution from child to greater maturity. How does she progress? What do you see for her future?

  12. How would you evaluate Rose's treatment of her two husbands? Do you sympathize with Thomas Clinton and Son? Can you understand Rose's behavior? Is she emotionally detached, selfish, cruel, just an independent woman? Does she have any model for marriage?

  13. Rose advises Billy, "You should do whatever you want to, whatever you can live with best." Does Rose apply this philosophy to her own decisions? What does "whatever you can live with best" really mean to her?

  14. Some readers may find an orderly resolution to the story, perhaps in Sissy's last thoughts about staying at St. Elizabeth's or Son's certainty that "Sissy made everything worthwhile." Other readers see odd people and troubled relationships that are ambiguous. What do you think? Do you find order? Or, alternatively, do you accept equivocal characters and motivations?
About the Author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963 and moved to Tennessee at the age of six. She was determined to be a writer from an early age. Patchett attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied under Russell Banks, Grace Paley and Alan Gurganus, and she sold her first story to The Paris Review before graduating. Patchett attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, earning a Masters in Fine Arts. In 1990, she was a residential fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and it was there she began to write her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. The novel won a James A. Michner/Copernicus Award for a book in progress. Published in 1992, The Patron Saint of Liars was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The American Library Association Notable Books Council chose it as one of the best works of fiction for the year. CBS adapted the novel to a TV movie in 1997.

Patchett has subsequently written three more acclaimed novels - Taft, The Magician's Assistant, and Bel Canto. Her most recent work, Bel Canto, is a 2002 Pen/Faulkner Award winner, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and a recipient of England's Orange Prize. Patchett has written for various magazines and newspapers, including Elle, GQ, Paris Review, Vogue, New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and Gourmet. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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The Patron Saint of Liars 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 102 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am fast becoming a fan of Ann Patchett! This novel has wonderful characters that draw you quickly into their lives. I also have read The Magician's Assistant, Truth and Beauty, and Run by this author and liked them all very much as well. If you are a fan of Jodi Picoult or Anita Shreve novels, you will like this book as it reminded me much of their works. I especially liked reading the editorial afterword by Patchett "The Movie of the Week Ate My Novel." It was funny and gave great insight about how much gets changed from the vision an author has about their books and their characters when they get made into movies. I am looking forward to reading the other novels written by this author, including Bel Canto and Taft.
CitygirlAG More than 1 year ago
This is my first Ann Patchett book. I picked it up because the title was intriging. I could not put the book down.....I enjoyed how Ms. Patchett told the story from the three main characters point of view. One thing though....the ending was very disappointing....It left me wanting about 20 more pages. I'll probably read another one of her books and see if the ending is disappointing as well.....
LovetoreadinFlorida More than 1 year ago
You can't help it, you will fall in love with each and every character that makes up this beautifully written story. The end will come too soon, you will want to know more, but this is the magic of Ann Patchett, you always end up wanting to know more about the characters, because they become your friends, your family. That's how real they are. Savour this little wonder of a book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's true ... I couldn't put it down! Your journey with Rose through her dreams, desires, despair, and finally her strength of character, consume your emotions. Then the author juxtaposes the narrator, and you see the events in a fresh light, with a whole new heart! The end is masterfully wrought, and will wrench from you a cry for more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nicely woven story, one where you wish everybody a nice ending but that's not the endings planned, as all of the writings of this author the end is a twist that leaves you wanting more even after the books is finished. Is it the characters? The story? Both. Well written once you get the cadence of the author. Enjoyed it very much, like all of her books actually.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great writing. I could not relate to Rose hurting her mother and Thomas and then Cecelia and Son. I guess that is one reason this is a well written book. The author makes you feel emotion al attachment. I hated to see this book end. She leaves the reader with her /his own idea as to what will happen next! Wonderful book!!
shanbritts More than 1 year ago
Loved this book, major page turner!!!!!!
OntheRocks More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book. My first of Ann Patchett. I am currently reading her book "Run." There are so many people like the character Rose. I have personally never experienced the death of a parent at a young age, but the effects must be dramatic and long lasting. Fathers and daughters relationships are vital. Rose grows up without a father and it is hard for her to make any commitments. She is searching in all the wrong places.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and this is my favorite book of hers. The pregnant home for girls setting was fascinating, as was the plot.
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
What a great book! It’s about a woman who runs off to a home for unwedded pregnant girls and ends up staying and raising her daughter there. The book is broken down into thirds with each section being told by a different narrator. The characters were all so loveable even if you didn’t particularly like or understand them. When I first started reading the book, I was intrigued but found it a little slow. Luckily, my sister had recommended it and told me to keep reading, and I’m glad I did! The past few books I have read have all lacked in some way, whether it be poor character development or failing to wrap up loose ends. This book was different. Although there were a few loose ends that could have been tied up a bit better, the fact that they were left the way they were only adds to the story itself. This was my second book by Anne Patchett (the other being State of Wonder) and they are so completely different. While the other book was also really great, this is one you want to curl up with on a windy and cloudy day (like today!).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Made me think about the roles we play and look outside my views. Hadn't thought about these situations.
grlgiraffe More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting story about people who get used to living in a certain way, having the daily habits over and over again. With the backdrop of a place for pregnant women to go through their pregnancies without the knowledge of their families. The story goes on to reveal secrets of a main character and shows how our lives are a continuous circle, even for the people involved in it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very captivating and I couldn't put it down. I felt that the characters where very real and you could feel the emotions. Enjoy Ann Patchett very much!
comet65 More than 1 year ago
My second book by Ann Patchett and my favorite thus far. It was difficult to put down and ended all too soon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not sure how I am just now finding this book? It's excellent.
MsKiz More than 1 year ago
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. This book did not disappoint. Ms Patchett writes about people you come to care about. I highly recommend it.
anonomas More than 1 year ago
This book is interesting. It tells a story from a different side.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful, as are all of Ms. Patchett's wondrous books. A gifted writer whose novels are luminous and magical.
butterflyBU More than 1 year ago
It held my interest through out. I enjoyed the characters and theme. However, I think it is left open for a second in the series. Worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really found myself disgusted with the main character, Rose after awhile. She was so selfish. The story is well written, although I became somewhat bored during Rose's cross country trip. I just found it a very odd book.
bunsmomtl More than 1 year ago
Would have liked a little more closure with Rose
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everything she writes is magical.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bittersweet story where you really feel for all the characters in the story. patchett has a way of making them come alive
bookluvrFC More than 1 year ago
Rose deserts her husband and, pregnant, enters a home for unwed mothers. The novel follows her time there, her daughter Cecilia's birth and growing years, and has subplots to round things out. It is a human drama and gives plenty to think about. I enjoyed reading it and although the plot may be unusual, I felt deep compassion for the characters, who have depth and psychologically ring true.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Looking forward to the next book by Ann Patchett.