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Review: Patron Saints of Nothing

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

3/5 stars

I liked this book as a YA novel - decent plot, relatable teenage characters, and a good way to raise awareness about Filipino culture and the drug war in the Philippines (but it's not too heavy or overwhelming).

The story follows Jay, a 17 year old boy who was born in the Philippines (Filipino father, American mother), but moved to the US with his family when he was just one year old. Many years back his family spent a summer visiting the Philippines, and he became very close to his cousin Jun. They wrote each other letters once he returned to the US, but eventually the correspondence faded away. When Patron Saints begins, Jay is in his final year of high school and feeling apathetic about school - both high school and about going off to college soon. Arriving home one day, he learns from his parents that Jun has been killed. He is told that Jun was a drug addict and dealer, and that the government-sanctioned "war on drugs" has allowed police officers and civilians alike to murder suspected users/sellers.

But Jay is convinced there's more going on. He can't believe his cousin would ever get involved in drugs - in part because he receives a mysterious, anonymous private message on social media that says so. He convinces his parents to allow him to visit the family in the Philippines for spring break. Lots of clue-unearthing follows as he tries to parse out truth and lies - from the government and from his own family members, who at first refuse to even acknowledge Jun's existence.

This is a story about grief, cultural identity, and growing up. I most strongly connected with the moments when Jay or one of his other family members were really grappling with the sadness of losing Jun. I also appreciated the complicated nature of that grief - the anger and disappointment mingled in, which nonetheless did not dilute the love.

I didn't care for the half-assed teenage romance, but luckily that was a pretty minor plotline. The one thing I did find irrationally maddening was that almost every single chapter heading was just the last line of that chapter. Silly and simplistic and boring. I think Ribay's prose is quite beautiful, so I guess I just thought, "you can do better."

Anyway, here are a couple of quotes I particularly liked:

It's a sad thing when you map the borders of a friendship and find it's a narrower country than expected.

I was so close to feeling like I had Jun's story nailed down. But no. That's not how stories work, is it? They are shifting things that re-form with each new telling, transform with each new teller. Less a solid, and more a liquid taking the shape of its container.

There was a time when I thought getting older meant you'd understand more about the world. But it turns out the exact opposite is true.


UP NEXT: How High the Moon, by Karyn Parsons

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