Monday, July 20, 2020

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls by Ursula Hegi, a tale of women's connections in 19th-century Germany

Perennial book-club favorite Hegi’s (Children and Fire, 2011) compassionately observant new novel takes place on Nordstrand island in North Frisia, Germany, where the line between fact and centuries-old myth can feel as blurred as that between sea and sky. The offbeat characters enhance the quasi-dreamlike effect, but the scenarios they face are starkly real.

After a giant wave sweeps her three oldest children into the Nordsee in 1878, Lotte Jansen withdraws from life and from her infant son, Wilhelm. While Lotte’s husband, Kalle, a toymaker, runs away with a traveling circus, Wilhelm is nursed by Tilli, an 11-year-old resident of the St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls, whose own baby is adopted at birth.

The nuns at St. Margaret’s are an unorthodox bunch who instruct their young charges in art and scholarly pursuits. Meanwhile, Sabine, the circus’ seamstress, seeks a husband for her cognitively impaired daughter.

The plot ambles along while threading together the stories of the women, who have the heaviest burdens to bear. Their emotional hardships are satisfyingly leavened by softer moments of romantic and familial love.

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls was published by Flatiron in June; I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  Doesn't it have a beautiful cover? It reflects the setting and storyline well.  I read it from an Edelweiss copy, which didn't have the jacket art, so I hadn't taken a close look before now.  It really does get across the blurred borders between sky and sea that Hegi emphasizes within the text.

Hegi has written many other historical novels set in 19th- and 20th-century Germany, including the Oprah pick Stones from the River (1994). This was my first experience reading one of her novels.


  1. Hegi is a new author for me - the Germany focus is intriguing, but maybe the books are too emotionally charged for me? Which of hers would you suggest as a good introduction?

  2. She's new to me also, but based on what I've read, her novels intertwine darker and lighter themes. Stones from the River is the most popular and part of a four-book cycle featuring the the small town of Burgdorf (they don't need to be read one after the other). She also has one called Sacred Time about an Italian-American family. The Vision of Emma Blau sounds intriguing as well, since it's an immigration story that spans a century. Not sure if that helps!

    1. Thanks - I'll give one of her books a try!

  3. A bit dark but definitely intriguing. Thanks for the review.

  4. It was dark in places but not depressing overall, if that makes sense.