The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla


Garnet Ferrari refuses to believe that she can heal anyone. It’s just a coincidence that all of the heartbreaks of psoriasis, pustulating epidermis, and marred acne complexions she encounters are miraculously healed. “Saint Garnet,” she of the Sweetwater, West Virginia backcountry, is not responsible. Just ask her.

Marie Manilla’s Italo-Appalachian tale, The Patron Saint of Ugly, revolves around the Catholic Church’s canonization investigation of second-generation American Garnet Ferrari and Garnet’s frantic attempts to derail the Church’s efforts.  Garnet’s high-born Virginia mother meets and marries a working class Italian, much to the chagrin of both families. Garnet, her parents and her golden brother Nicky settle in Sweetwater, West Virginia, watched over by her paternal grandmother, the formidably capable, malocchio-fighting, superhero Nonna Diamante Ferrari whose voice is a frequent interrupter of Garnet’s narrative.

Though pilgrims world-wide claim to have been healed by Garnet, she herself is disfigured as described by the Vatican’s envoy, Archbishop Gormley:

The background tone of her flesh is pale, but the birthmarks decorating her skin are varying shades of purple: deep mulberry, magenta, the faintest mauve. It looks as if someone took a map of the world, cut out continents and islands, provinces and cantons, and glued them willy-nilly on Garnet’s body. I distinctly identified Alaska on her right cheek, the Aleutians trailing over her nose; Mongolia on one shoulder; Zaire on the other; Crete on her knee; Chile on her ankle; and many others. There is a kind of beauty in her birthmarks; God’s holy design is imprinted on her skin.

map of the globe

I had the pleasure of meeting and spending the better part of a week “porch-sittin and wine-sippin” with West Virginia-born, Italian-American, author Marie Manilla at the Hindman Settlement School Writers’ Workshop last August. I had an equal pleasure in reading Marie’s glorious novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, shortly thereafter. It’s a fairy tale, a morality tale, a novel of Southern Gothic mysticism and Italian malocchio (evil-eye) enchantment and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It reminded me a good deal of Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom, another fantastic, tall-tale with a fascinating heroine.

fear of women

Nonna remembers when the neighbors got their first look at me. It was a fall afternoon when she and Mom tried out the new strollers.  Mom went first, pushing Nicky, with Nonna and me several paces behind. The hill women hand not seen their flaxen-haired boy in months, and they had never seen his cloistered little sister. They raced forward with offerings, their own children toddling beside them. “Where is our beautiful boy?” Gonna sputtering ptt-ptt-ptt. Next they veered toward me; Mom and Nonna hoped decorous manners would prevail.

They did not. When the women inspected me, their hands flew to their mouths. What’s wrong with her? Is she contagious?”

“Of course a-not!” Nonna said.

But the children bawled at the sight and ran home, chased by their mothers who slammed their doors, windows too, and then the drapes.

Kirkus Reviews compared it to Tristam Shandy As Nonna would said, “not a-bad. Not a-bad at all.”


I emailed Marie and told her I had planned to write about The Patron Saint of Ugly and she remarkably sent me her family recipe and some background which is integral to her work . . . and fascinating as well. I am MAKING THIS this weekend!

Grandma Conchetta

Marie Manilla’s Grandma Conchetta

I dedicated the novel to my grandmother, Concetta Ferrari Lapelle Manilla. Unfortunately, she died before I was born, but the family lore is that she escaped an arranged marriage back in Sicily by selling some of the family jewels and hopping a ship to America. This made her a hero to me. Her second husband was my Calabrian grandfather, a stone mason who lived in Huntington, West Virginia, where my father was born. It’s also my hometown. Apparently Grandma was a fabulous cook who, according to Grandpa Manilla, “Could even make shit taste delicious.” My mother lived with them for about a year after she and my father married. Mom remembers Concetta making pasta by hand and draping it over the dining room chairs to dry. As soon as the men left for work and the breakfast dishes were cleared, Concetta would say in broken English: “Now it’s-a time to start cooking the supper,” which always included a side serving of pasta. Concetta never wrote any of her recipes down, so when she died, her recipes went with her—except for her spaghetti sauce, which my father used to make once a year. It was a grand and sacred production. He never wrote the recipe down either, but Mom watched him make it enough that she recounted it for me as best she could. It’s very simple, and I can still remember the smell and distinctive taste. No one has made it in its pure form since my father died in 1993, though some of us have tried, often adding additional spices and meats, though the flavor is never quite the same.

Concetta’s (and Dad’s) Spaghetti Sauce

4 pounds of beef short ribs (as opposed to pork ribs, which are more commonly used)

6 cans of Contadina Tomato Paste


Salt and pepper

Brown the beef short ribs in two big spaghetti pots Add salt and pepper Add Contadina Tomato Paste Fill pots to the brim with water Simmer for two days—two days!—until the water reduces, the sauce thickens, and the meat is falling from the bones. Serve over pasta with garlic bread, a salad, and plenty of red wine.

I would serve this spaghetti sauce with good bread, several bottles of Italian red wine ( and a lovely cheesecake for dessert.


Once again, Marie provided the soundtrack to her writing process which will make a fabulous soundtrack for your book club’s discussion of The Patron Saint of Ugly. Heck, it’s a fabulous soundtrack for day-to-day living as far as I’m concerned!

While I was writing the novel, the soundtrack playing in my head included Italian-American singers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. When I had my Patron Saint launch party I bought CDs of all of these singers. My Italian-American husband suggested I also include Italian singer, Domenico Modugno, whom his Italian grandparents adored.

Here’s a selection of particular favorites:

Frank Sinatra: “I’ve got the World on a String” (for Garnet—my globe-speckled narrator) and “Witchcraft” for Nonna’s belief in the Evil Eye and Le Strega—the witch who lives atop Garnet’s hill.

Dean Martin: “That’s Amore” and “Volare.”

Rosemary Clooney: “Come On-A My House” and “Mambo Italiano.”

Domenico Modgno: “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” and “O Sole Mio.”

Louis Prima: “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie” (for me), and “Angelina” (for my mother-in-law).

Tony Bennett: “Stranger in Paradise” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”


Garnet — Emma Stone

Nonna Diamante — Christina Hendricks (Don’t get mad at me. She needs to be able to play Diamante as a young woman too!)

Dominick Ferrari — Steve Buscemi/Frankie Muniz

Angelo Ferrari — Armand Assante/Mark RuffaloPatron Saint Cover 65

La Strega — Jessica Lange

Read it. You’ll LOVE IT. Happy Reading and Eating!






Sharing Stories: Appalachian Writers Retreat

Hindman Settlement School For 38 years, writers have been gathering on the banks of Troublesome Creek in Hindman, Kentucky, to write, learn, share stories, fellowship and honor Kentucky literary greats like James Still.  This year, I have the opportunity to join them.

Troublesome Creek

Troublesome Creek

The Appalachian Writers Retreat officially kicked off last night with readings by Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon and former Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman, author of “Divine Right’s Trip.” After the readings, we gathered on our covered porch, rocking in the red and white metal chairs, to hunt and peck through facts and details of the lives of one another. West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire. Poets, essayists, food writers, novelists, short story writers. One of my favorite housemates is Key, the Great Dane-German Shepherd mix who is accompanying his companion, Lexington poet Rebecca Gayle Howell.

Today, writing workshops began and there were afternoon readings by several participants.  One of my housemates, E. Gail Chandler, encouraged me to read because she was going to, and I read a short story called “Another Minute.” It was well-received.  Even Robert Gipe, author of the ballyhooed graphic novel “Trampoline” complimented me (which made my day!).  I thought I’d share the story with you.

Another Minute

          Darlene wiped Amethyst Ablaze lipstick from her lips with a greasy McDonald’s napkin as Earl’s Camaro shuddered to a stop. Go back with Maybelline on her lips and the screws might figure she’d been gone for five hours.

Earl wrapped a rubber-band around the gearshift to hold neutral, grabbed the crowbar from the back seat, then scuttled behind the back of the car to keep watch while Darlene slid low in the seat and emptied out the contents of the Wal-Mart bag: three tubes of Great Lash Mascara, two tins of Camel Spice snus, and one “Thrill” rechargeable personal massager. She’d get enough to buy commissary for the next three months and then her bit’d be up.

Darlene shimmied out of her jeans, pulled the “Go Vols” t-shirt over her head and then reached for the orange jumpsuit crumpled behind the seat. She put her feet into the leg holes and slid the sleeves up and onto her shoulders, feeling like she was clamping shackles on herself.

Earl wrenched open the passenger door.

“Earl, put this mascara under my bra in the back.” She lowered the back of the jumpsuit, giving him full access while she arranged each round tin of tobacco in the front cups of her bra. “Now all’s left is the vibrator for Screamin Nina.”

Earl snorted. “Don’t reckon you’d wanna . . . ”

“Earl. God. Don’t be gross,” she said, but snickered. “Anything coming?” Darlene examined the road in both directions and saw no traffic. She stepped out of the car and stood hunched next to Earl with the jumpsuit hanging open off her shoulders. The vibrator tucked neatly inside the back of the grayish-white prison-issue granny panties.

She snapped the front of the cheap cotton cloth back together. “Sounds like bars closing, don’t it, Earl?”

“Damn baby.” Earl enveloped her body. “I hate leaving you here again. You call when you’re back in now.”

Darlene nodded once, sniffed back a few tears. She knew Earl felt bad; he’d told her many times how sorry he was she got caught with his deal. But there it was, he was out and she was in. She didn’t want a blotchy, tear-stained face to be the last thing Earl saw. She wanted him to remember those two hours at the Motel Six and hoped it was enough to keep him honest for her final ninety days. She stepped away and turned her back to him. “You don’t see nothing?”

“Nah, baby. You’re good.” Earl leaned against the passenger door, grasped Darlene’s ass in his hands then turned her for a final kiss. Behind her on the hill was nothing but grass and trees and silence. If he hadn’t known better, he would’ve thought this was just another of the rich, loamy farms in the area; limestone swiss-cheesing below the surface of the grass they called blue, glossy millionaire horses chawing on blades of it from above.

“I’ll make it back fine before the count as long as they ain’t looking for me.”

The sound of gravel spraying surprised them both but it was just an old Chevy parking in front of a yellow frame house across the road. A sturdy man in jeans got out of the car, glanced quickly at Earl’s beater before popping the trunk and pulling three brown paper Kroger sacks to carry into the house.

“You’re a good man y’know, Earl? I couldn’t of stood this place another day if you hadn’t of got me this morning. I needed you in that motel room.” She pressed her groin against him, hard. “Don’t forget that. This shit for the girls inside is just a little extra for commissary, you know? I hate having to ask you for money.”

Earl groaned. “Gal, don’t do that or I’ll take you right back to the motel and no Wal-Mart this time.”

Darlene giggled and ground against him tighter. With her head on his shoulder, she could see a mile down the road. She heard a growling Harley, saw it approaching from far away. “When I’m done, let’s get one of them bikes and just go. God, I wish it was now.”

A job in a Seven/Eleven; fixing food she wanted, not something slopped out of a can barely heated; maybe somewhere down the line a pink baby with Earl’s red hair wrapped in a soft, blue blanket.

“Get on now, ‘Lene.” Earl held her tighter for a heartbeat and then released her with the changing of the wind. Darlene sighed, detached herself and edged up the hill. She heard the clang of the crowbar Earl threw it into the floorboard and turned back to wave. But the man across the road had come back out his front door and was looking at Earl too. He spoke to Earl from across the black border of asphalt. When he started walking toward Earl, Darlene froze.


There were no trees, no shrubs, not even any long grass between the road and the brick walls of the minimum-security prison. Only short-termers and low risks were housed here with the expectation they would stay put. If you were dumb enough to screw up your last minute, the bulls would make sure you got enough time you didn’t make that mistake again.

Brophy stood in the road, completely focused on shouting at Earl to move the Camaro and damn if that Harley wasn’t headed right for his stupid ass. Jesus God, Brophy, Darlene thought. Look up.

He did not.

As the bike got closer, the noise got louder but still the damn fool didn’t move. Surely to God Earl heard it. But Earl was still as a catatonic holy roller.


Darlene stood rooted ten yards away from Earl, undeniably outside the low, wire fence that marked the boundary. “Brophy,” Darlene shouted. “Move!”

He jumped at Darlene’s shout, saw the motorcycle headed for him and ran toward Earl. The Harley swerved, continued without slowing, the growl decreasing as it passed. Darlene watched until it shrank to a pinpoint on the vast blue horizon. When she turned back, the Corporal’s narrowed eyes were fixed on her face.

“Thanks, Cooper,” he said. “Course, that’s escape. I gotta charge you. You’ll probably get transferred and do two more years.”

“Yeah.” Darlene put her hands behind her back.