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Review: Philomena by Martin Sixsmith

Note: This is an unusual review for me. I had started to read the book, provided by HarperCollins Canada when I was offered tickets to see the film version. I hadn’t finished the book, and made the decision to hold off as I didn’t want to rush the narrative. As a result, my thoughts on this story are based on both the book and the film. I’ll make distinctions whenever possible. 

philomenaA compelling story of family secrets, love and loss – now a major film starring Judi Dench, directed by Stephen Frears 

When she fell pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to the convent at Roscrea in Co. Tipperary to be looked after as a fallen woman. She cared for her baby for three years until the Church took him from her and sold him, like countless others, to America for adoption. Coerced into signing a document promising never to attempt to see her child again, she nonetheless spent the next fifty years secretly searching for him, unaware that he was searching for her from across the Atlantic. 

Philomena’s son, renamed Michael Hess, grew up to be a top Washington lawyer and a leading Republican official in the Reagan and Bush administrations. But he was a gay man in a homophobic party where he had to conceal not only his sexuality but, eventually, the fact that he had AIDs. With little time left, he returned to Ireland and the convent where he was born: his desperate quest to find his mother before he died left a legacy that was to unfold with unexpected consequences for all involved. 

Philomena is the tale of a mother and a son whose lives were scarred by the forces of hypocrisy on both sides of the Atlantic and of the secrets they were forced to keep. A narrative of human love and loss, Martin Sixsmith’s moving account is both heartbreaking yet ultimately redemptive.

When you are adopted, there’s a part of you that always wonders.

As happy as you can be with your family – that is, your true forever family, the people who raised you – there’s always a niggling notion in the back of your head that whispers questions to you. “What was she like? Did she have curly hair? Did she love the same things that I did? How did she meet my father? Did she want me?” They aren’t necessarily logical questions, and they have no bearing on your real life – they are just the questions that hover at the edges of your mind. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your family and that you aren’t happy where you are (although sometimes, for some people, that’s the case) – it’s just natural curiosity.

This book chronicles the dual stories of Philomena, an unwed mother and her son, Michael Hess, who was taken from her. Philomena Lee was a young, innocent and unknowing woman who ended up pregnant and alone in rural Ireland in the 1950’s – not a time to be an unwed mother, to be sure. Shunned by her family and looked down upon by the nuns, hers was a life of essential slavery in exchange for the care of her child – until he was ultimately sold off to a rich American family and she was cast out of the nunnery. Michael Hess has an equally tragic story, if for different reasons. Adrift and always conscious of never quite fitting in, a closeted homosexual in the administration of a political party that did not recognize or value his sexuality and a man who hunted for clues to his past as his time ran out, Michael becomes a figure of pathos in the book. The full title of the book is “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search”, and that’s an important distinction. Ultimately, neither story is easy to read, and your heart breaks multiple times for the missed opportunities and the sense of loss both individuals felt throughout their lives. You can’t help but question if Michael might have had an easier life had he been allowed to stay with his mother, but are then reminded of the harsh realities of life in Ireland during the 1950’s and ’60’s.

The movie takes a different tack from the book, and while it’s a departure, it’s no less compelling. This version focuses more on the relationship between Martin and Philomena, and their joint journey to discover what happened to her little boy. It’s no less heart-wrenching; while we know the details, it is the way Dench conveys her character’s  slow understanding of the kind of man her little boy grew up to be that will draw you in, and we weep along as she realizes that she will never have the chance to see him again.

For me, the most devastating part of the book and the movie lay in the decision by the nuns to hide the search of each participant from each other. While finding my birth mother is not a search I’ve ever undertaken, I felt the sense of urgency Michael must have had about him especially as he tried to trace his roots before succumbing to complications of AIDS. For him to die, not knowing that his mother searched for him from the day he was taken from her was a moral tragedy that could have been averted. I can only imagine how shattered Philomena must have felt upon realizing that, not only had her son been searching for her, but that he was buried in the very place she had turned to for answers. Leaving aside the religious issues involved, I found it difficult to fathom how anyone might have thought that it was a good idea to act in that manner, and how either party benefited from being separated from each other. Even if they had only a few years before Michael’s death, that brief time could have given answers and comfort to both mother and son.

There’s some great discussion that develops when you read this story. I chose it for our in-store book club, and the book talk was lively and long-lived. Some appreciated the differentiation between the role of religion in particular individual’s lives and the actions of religious figures towards those same characters, while others were intrigued by the social conventions of the time and place. We wondered about Michael’s father, and about what role he might have played in his life. We explored the concept of the ‘stolen babies’, in Ireland and in other countries, and compared it to First Nations children who were removed from their families “for their own good”. A number of us who were adoptees ourselves wondered how our lives compared to what might have been – and we were all in agreement that our present-day lives were much better than the alternatives. Collectively, we were very interested to learn more about Philomena, and some even wished that the book had gone into more detail about her life.

I can’t recommend the book and the movie enough – if you have not had the opportunity to read the book, then please do so. As well, Steve Coogan and Dame Judi Dench give wonderful performances that compliment the spirit, if not the exact word, of the book. Individually, they are worth experiencing; together, they are a fascinating portrait of a time not-so-long ago and the resilience of the individual to carry love and to find what is needed in life in order to survive.

Philomena (aka The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search) is published by PAN Macmillan UK, part of HarperCollins Canada and is available for purchase wherever fine books are sold. The movie, “Philomena” starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan is in theatres at the time of this review. The book was purchased by me, with no expectation of review, and a screening of the movie was provided by HarperCollins Canada, with no expectation of review. ISBN: 9780230744271, 452 pages. 

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5 Responses »

  1. Now I really want to read both the book and see the movie! Thank you for posting this!

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  2. I’ve heard really great things about the book and the movie. I’m kind of swamped with books right now so this may be one of those times where I have to watch the movie first.

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  3. Good book, but very deceiving. I bought the book thinking it was Philomena’s story of searching for her son. But, it’s about Mike the son. Would have like it better if it was the story of Philomena’s search

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