Once in a while, I read a book that stirs such intense emotions in me to the point where I feel as if I am one of the characters. This morning, I finally finished a book I began last week (it was a busy and tiring week for me). I have always been a fan of Luanne Rice and this book does not disappoint. The first half of the book is slow, but it does pick up and kept me interested. This is a story about a love so strong that time and distance cannot diminish or extinguish it. It is also about hope, forgiveness, and survival.
There are no intentional spoilers in this review, only my honest opinion, but there may be an occasional plot revealed in order for me to tell my thoughts.
What Matters Most is the story of Sister Bernadette Ignatius (Bernie Sulllivan) and Tom Kelly, whose love story began in Ireland and ends in America, spanning almost two decades. Sister Bernadette and Tom gave up their newborn son whom they named James Sullivan (he later calls himself Seamus, Irish for James) because of a vision she had from Mary to take the vow. They took comfort in knowing James would be adopted by a family who would love him.
In a parallel story, Seamus is unable to stop thinking about Kathleen, a girl he grew up with at the orphanage run by the Sisters at St. Augustine. They were both taken in as newborns and immediately developed a special bond. They became inseparable and were best friends. James was never adopted, but Kathleen’s birth parents came for her when she was thirteen. Devastated, he runs away from the orphanage, determined to find Kathleen. Ten years later, Bernie and Tom return to Ireland to find the son they gave up, but Seamus wants nothing to do with them. Disheartened, they return to Connecticut where Bernie is the Mother Superior at Star of the Sea Academy.
Tom, in love with Bernie, has been by her side as the groundskeeper of Star of the Sea, hoping that one day Bernie would have a change of heart and renounce her calling. All he wants is to marry Bernie, the woman he loves beyond all else. Bernie is torn between her duty to the Church and her love for Tom. She wavers at times, showing her vulnerability, but then in a show of strength, resolves to keep her vows, no matter the price. The love story of Bernie and Tom is very bittersweet, and the ending will leave you crying.
There is so much more to this story than I have written, so I urge anyone who is interested just a bit to pick up the book and read it. You will find out what happens to Bernie, Tom, Kathleen, and Seamus. Oh, you will also meet some great secondary characters that I wish were more developed.
What I liked about What Matters Most:
1. Beautifully written, I feel the hopelessness of Tom, the despair Seamus has at the possibility of not seeing Kathleen again.
2. The conflicting emotions that Bernie has between her calling to God and Tom, her one true love, makes her relatable, but at the same time, unlikeable, if that is possible to dislike a nun.
3. I can visualize Ireland through the eyes of the characters and appreciate their love for their country.
4. Reminds me that we are all flawed in some way. We make decisions everyday we believe are right at the time that affect those we work with and those we love. The hope is that we learn from those mistakes and retain them as life lessons for future reference.
What I found lacking:
1. The character development of both Kathleen and Seamus. I know they have this special bond, but what are their personalities like? What do they like to do? Read, play sports, swim, etc…?
2. The story line with the Mother Superior at the orphanage also needs to be more developed. The author reveals a little bit why the Mother Superior is so bitter towards Bernie and consequently making decisions that ultimately changed the paths of Bernie, Tom, Seamus, and Kathleen.
3. I do not know much about the Catholic faith, so a little more explanation about why Bernie suddenly gave up a child she loves desperately would make me understand her decision more. Is the calling something that supersedes everything in life? Is it the job of the Mother Superior to help make the decision for those who have such visions?
4. The ending to me was abrupt, as if the author just wanted to finish the story and felt like that was a good spot to end the saga. I felt like the story between Bernie and Tom was not finished. I can’t say much more without revealing the ending, but somehow what happened was unbelievable to me. No warning signs and boom, it happens.
5. Kathleen’s reappearance in the book did nothing for me. So she is the lost love of Seamus, so what? The author did not make me care about Kathleen and Seamus’s love story. Maybe it is because they were 13 when separated and really did not have time to develop their young love into something more. Is it believable that young love this young can survive that long and be even stronger after a decade? I guess I am a skeptic.
In summary, the last forty pages plummeted me into a feeling so melancholy I had this urge to curl up in my bed, get underneath my white down comforter and cry. I could feel Tom’s pain, his love so evident in everything he has done for Bernie, what he has given up to be with her: his wealth, their son, and a chance to have a family. Tom is the character I most identified with, I wanted so much for him. My soul aches for him.