At first glance, the brilliant red popping out of a blue sky on the cover of Marie Manilla’s novel The Patron Saint of Ugly flows like a cloak, but is actually a mane of red hair with only one aquamarine eye peeking out of a face. Why are tiny figures of elderly women and young children climbing the mass of hair, as though it were a crimson hillside? one might ask on further study. But once the reader moves into the book itself, she soon learns that the cover supplies a dominant image for the novel.
Protagonist Garnet Ferrari, colloquially known as Saint Garnet, tells the story through a series of twenty-one audio [End Page 124] tapes she is recording for an investigation being conducted by the Vatican to determine whether she really does have healing powers, as the masses assert. A young twenty-something, she disavows all such claims. In her first tape addressed “To the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Archbishop Gormley in particular,” she says, “Before we begin, Archie, I want to reiterate that the only reason I’ve granted this intrusion is that the sooner we dispel this sainted nonsense the sooner I can reclaim my life, or perhaps claim it for the first time.”
Garnet goes on to recount various healing miracles that have been attributed to her from the time she was four-years-old. She continually maintains, however, that she is not doing “it”—if anyone is, it’s Nonna, her Sicilian grandmother, who just as vociferously maintains it is not she. With this conflict, Manilla establishes one of the many dualities that operate throughout the book: both Garnet and Nonna seem to be present when “miracles” occur, the former unwillingly and the latter quite willingly. Garnet is young and sassy; Nonna is old and feisty in her own way. Garnet scoffs at the rituals and trappings of Catholicism; Nonna embraces them (both the Old Religion of pagan superstitions and the New Religion of current practices). Where Nonna was considered to be a beautiful young woman, red-haired like the Pining Nereid of the Strait of Messina, Garnet is considered to be ugly because of the multiple wine-colored birthmarks that cover her entire body, along with her flaming red hair. The birthmarks, which look strangely like identifiable land masses from across the world, have given rise to the “Santa Garney” reputation, based on the Sicilian legend of Saint Garnet del Vulcano who survived an eruption of Mount Etna, only to be left with red splotches all over her body and the ability to heal skin disorders. Nonna told this legend to Garnet at a young age, indicating her great love for this special child. She [End Page 125] went on to spread it throughout the neighborhood, citing the connections, of course, to her own granddaughter. Perhaps it was Nonna’s attempt to make the marked child more accepted by the townspeople; whatever her motive, Garnet lives from the outset as “the other.”
While this book sparkles with humor and wit in the monologue of Garnet and the dialogue of the various characters, it also tells of hard times caused by physical imperfections, by abusive relatives, by cruel townspeople, and by withered dreams. Many of these struggles play out through the dualities that Manilla so skillfully employs: the village is populated half by Italians and half by Irish, both groups devout Catholics worshipping at the same church but each set needing its own saints and rituals. Garnet’s parents demonstrate a similar dichotomy: her father Angelo is a short dark Italian; her mother Marina a tall blonde of British ancestry. Angelo comes from working-class immigrants from Calabria and Sicily who have settled in Sweetwater, West Virginia; Marina comes from wealth and privilege, a huge estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a year at Smith College. Angelo’s parents represent yet another duality. Back in Italy two brothers fell in love with the same girl, the beautiful red-haired Diamante (Nonna). She loved the younger brother Angelo who...