July 22, 2013
In 1952, Philomena Lee, a young unwed Irish Catholic woman, was sent away to an abbey in County Tipperary to await the birth of her illegitimate child. Journalist Sixsmith (Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East) chillingly recounts the subsequent events. After surviving a harrowing breech birth attended to only by an inexperienced nun, Philomena learned she had to work in the abbey for three years to pay off the cost of her care. She rose at 6 a.m. each day to feed her son, Anthony, before attending Mass and spending the next several hours sweating in the abbey’s laundry room. But the worst was yet to come. At the end of Philomena’s service, Anthony was taken from her to be placed with “any person” the abbey’s Superioress deemed “fit and proper”—a practice condoned by the Catholic Church and facilitated by the Irish government. An American couple adopted Anthony, took him to the States, and changed his name to Michael Hess. This part of the book is riveting, but the 50-year search promised in the subtitle takes a backseat to Michael’s suburban upbringing and his experiences as a gay man; Philomena all but disappears. The much-anticipated ending of this mother-and-son saga is hurried, incomplete, and unsatisfying. 36 b&w photos. Agent: Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge & White.