The Lacemaker: A Novel of St. Zélie Martin
St. Zélie Martin (1831-1877) is best known as the mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most-loved saints of modern times, but she is also a saint in her own right. In this work of historical fiction based largely on St. Zélie’s letters, a compelling portrait of a working mother who always put God first comes to life.
St. Zélie is a saint many women can relate to. She suffered from anxiety, struggled with work-life balance, grieved the loss of children, cared for aging parents, had a child with special needs, and dealt with personal illness. Above all, she loved God and her family and had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother.
In this intimate portrayal, you will come to know a complex woman who achieved holiness while living in the world and dealing with the stress of modern life.
Interview with Author Anne Faye
Why tell St. Zélie’s story?
Like many others, I first heard of St. Zélie in the story of her most famous child, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I first read St. Thérèse’s autobiography, Story of a Soul, when I was young. My mother had a great devotion to St. Thérèse and passed that on to me. I would revisit that famous book many more times in my life. Yet, for a long time, the most I could have told you about St. Thérèse’s mother was that she died when the great saint was only a small child.
My first true introduction to St. Zélie was when she and her husband, Louis, were being beatified in 2008. By this point, I had been married for several years and had children of my own. It was exciting to see a married couple being beatified. They were canonized in 2015.
In October of 2019, I read The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux by Hélène Mongin and became intrigued by this story of a modern woman who lived a life of holiness out in the world while dealing with the challenges of marriage, motherhood, and work. Here was a saint I could relate to.
I then attended a retreat in November 2019 in which the facilitator, Megan Baillargeon, spoke about St. Zélie. She had a book of St. Zélie’s letters. I had not known such a resource existed. I left the retreat determined to get a copy of that book and to write this saint’s story.
St. Zélie has much to offer as a role model for women today. Although she lived nearly 150 years ago, she struggled with many of the same issues that women do today. She had to balance family and work. She often was sleep-deprived. She suffered from anxiety, constantly worrying about her children. She experienced great grief, losing four of her children in early childhood. She had health problems, experiencing painful headaches and then ultimately dying of breast cancer. Through it all, she put her trust in God.
Those who believe she deserved sainthood only because of her children (all five of her children who lived to adulthood became religious sisters) sell her short. Yes, she raised her children to be holy, but she and her husband are saints in their own right because of their own faith lived out in the daily challenge of life in the world. St. Zélie was not perfect, but she always put God first. She is a heavenly friend whom women can turn to in their times of need. St. Zélie, pray for us.
What is truth and fiction in this retelling?
Whenever I read a work of historical fiction, I always wonder what is based in fact and what is a product of the author’s imagination.
Part One of this book is largely fictional. With the exception of a few major life events, little is known of St. Zélie’s early life. She did have a difficult relationship with her mother. She was rejected when she attempted to enter the convent. She did have inner locutions that told her to make lace and that Louis Martin was the man for her. The two did have a celibate marriage for nine months before a spiritual director encouraged them to consummate their relationship. They did care for a small child during those early days. The vast majority of details are my best guess of what might have happened.
Parts Two and Three are based largely on St. Zélie’s letters. While, to my knowledge, she never kept a journal, she was a prolific letter writer, corresponding often with her brother and sister. Later on, she would write to her daughters while they were away at school. Not all of her letters survived. Some were destroyed. Others were edited by her family in order to remove sensitive material. However, those letters that do remain paint a vibrant portrait of the saint’s daily life. I have paraphrased parts of those letters, adding some additional color.
I prayed fervently to both the Holy Spirit and to St. Zélie for inspiration and guidance as I wrote this book. I can only hope that if I am ever blessed enough to encounter St. Zélie in heaven, she will be pleased with how I portrayed her. Any errors are mine.
You haven’t written about a real-life historical person before. How was that different?
It was definitely a different experience to write about a real-life person. With my previous books, I was able to let creativity take over. I could let the story go wherever I wanted. With this book, I wanted to make it as historically accurate as possible. That took a lot of research. It also meant that there were limitations on where the story could go. While I had some leeway in how I presented her story and what details I chose to include, the basic framework that I had to work within was already there.
I enjoyed the process, but it was also a bit nerve-wracking. I wanted this book to be an accurate portrayal of St. Zélie. In the early part of her story, I didn’t have as much research material to rely on so that was more based on my imagination. I hope I have portrayed her well.
Anne Faye’s fictionalized biography of St. Zelie Martin, largely based on the saint’s personal correspondence, is a compelling read. The book is well researched and gives the reader a clear portrait of life in that time and place. It is written in the form of diary entries, and truly is an intimate look at the dreams, disappointments, joys, and difficulties this saint experienced. 5 out of 5 stars!— Barb Szyszkiewicz
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