American Culture

Review: The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, by Teresa Milbrodt

A cyclops and an odyssey reveal that life and coffee turn out to be better when richer and more exotic…

Teresa Milbrodt writes in a genre that a fellow author calls “Midwestern Mythic.” Her recent novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, certainly fits her genre well. We meet multiple cyclops (maybe cyclopes), go on an odyssey, find a miracle, and even visit a pub with the all too weightily Homeric name The Three-Headed Dog. As in her first book, Bearded Women, Teresa Milbrodt’s The Patron Saint of Unattractive Women explores the discovery of what it means to be “different” – and to accept being different as normal.

The unnamed protagonist, a woman of 37 who is a cyclops by birth and a coffee barista by – well, maybe by birth, too. An only child, she lives with her difficult parents – her father is an especially adamant sort who has largely lost his sight to glaucoma and yet is sure he sees things clearly (yeah, he’s a sort of an anti-Tiresias) and her mother is – I guess you wouldn’t be wrong to call her a hybrid of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s spouse. The protagonist, like any good cyclops, spends a lot of her time thinking she’d just like to be left alone.

Mixed into this heady brew of Greek mythology is an obscure Christian saint, Drogo, the actual patron saint of unattractive people. The parents’ coffee shop has a Saint Drogo relic, a piece of his shepherd’s staff that the father found in a small shop in France while serving in the military. It is this relic – and her need to find out who she is as both a cyclops and a woman – that is the catalyst of the protagonist’s odyssey.

That odyssey takes her from Ohio to New Jersey via West Virginia where she meets lotus eaters of a sort. In Jersey she ends up meeting, via a family friend named Cynthia (another name for Diana/Artemis, goddess of the hunt) a possible soul mate. She also finds work in a restaurant that caters to wealthy patrons and their cats, is befriended by one of those patrons, meets another cyclops who is not particularly helpful in her quest for self-knowledge, and receives, via her wealthy cat enthusiast friend the funds she needs to make a journey: first to England where she meets a much more interesting cyclops and  learns both about him and herself, then to France where she finds her miracle in the form of a baby girl and an invisible presence who may or may not be Drogo. From France it’s back to England, then America, i.e., New Jersey, where trouble at home (her father’s desire to right a perceived – or rather, mis-perceived – remember, he’s anti-Tiresias – wrong gets him into serious trouble) calls her – and her soul mate, Levi, back to Ohio.

But like with so many of life’s problems, coffee turns out to be both a balm and a magic sword that leads to a happy ending for our protagonist, her parents, her Levi, and at least one other cyclops.

Yeah, it’s a wacky piece of that stuff too many readers cringe at called literary fiction. But Milbrodt writes in a beautifully unassuming, conversational style that allows readers to join in the madcap goings on without ever feeling that they’re in a literature class. Readers will fall in love with the cyclops barista and root for her to find the answers she seeks about herself, about life, about saints like Drogo who went from peripatetic shepherd to anchorite without seeming to mind so much. What the protagonist and the reader – learns is that the miracle is realizing we’re alive – and doing something with that knowledge that makes yourself – and everyone else – a little bit happier.

Everyone from Sir James Fraser to Vladimir Propp to Joseph Campbell would call that a successful quest. And that makes The Patron Saint of Unattractive People a book worth reading.