In All Saints, author Liam Callanan follows the intimacies of fifty-year-old Emily Hamilton, a cynical chain-smoking middle-aged religious teacher who works at the prestigious All Saints Catholic School set right on Newport Beach, just a stone's throw away from her home on Balboa Island.
As the novel opens, Emily seems to be on the brink of many things. The victim of life's hard knocks, she's held on fast to her Christian faith, even though she sees herself as a bit of a failure in both marriage and in life.
The good fathers who run the school are mostly all members of an obscure, dwindling society named the order of Saint Andrew. Emily uses their classroom as her court, trying to get the students interested in church history, peppering her diatribes with large doses of irony while pondering on the concepts of saints and popes.
Although fifty, Emily is certainly no shrinking violet, and she isn't that shocked to find herself eagerly fantasizing over kissing the handsome eighteen-year-old Edgar, a self-confessed rapscallion and unofficial beautiful student who comes to Emily ever more frequently. In fact, she gets so carried away with
his attentions that she's even willing to give him "whole days of my precious life."
Emily confides with the ailing Father Martin Dimanche, "this slight man with thinning grey hair" who becomes her partner in crime as they furtively swap cigarettes high atop the school's beachside steeple. "You know, there's nothing more sensual than smoking," says Martin as they talk about the philosophical and the religious, driving them both to see the soul and blight of each day.
It is here that we finally learn of Emily's three marriages and her childhood miscarriage, when she went almost berserk, hysterical and self-destructive. Emily is all too willing to paint Edgar as the provocateur in the affair, but the ultimate shock is that she wants to kiss both Paul – Edgar's best friend - and even Martin, who seems to strangely hold a romantic flame for her.
Part mystery and part love story, All Saints
has a sprightly, frolicking pace, with Callanan offering up a satirical take on the interaction of faith and redemption with the modern world. In Emily's view, integrity and façade always ends up being an uneasy mix.
She constantly finds herself questioning the contradictions between religion, superstition and real life.
From the moment Emily steps into All Saints, she is involved in a battle of wits, questioning her life in matters of kissing and courage: "all I have to do is look at the backs of my hands to remember how old I am."
Yet her journey is indeed in danger of being thwarted, and her life takes yet another dramatic turn when she's faced with an unexpected suicide, a teenage pregnancy and a series of heartbreaking confessionals.
In the course of the story, Emily goes through so much but comes out relatively unscathed, even though she
has managed to "alienate every friend she's ever had, and divorce every husband."
Although she faces some bitter truths about age and aging, Emily is also a survivor, a fine example of one woman's capacity for forgiveness.