• Philomena

  • A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search
  • By: Martin Sixsmith
  • Narrated by: John Curless
  • Length: 15 hrs and 33 mins
  • 4.0 out of 5 stars (908 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Now a major motion picture directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) and starring Judi Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) and Steve Coogan (The Trip, Hamlet 2): the heartbreaking true story of an Irishwoman and the secret she kept for 50 years. When she became pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to a convent to be looked after as a "fallen woman". Then the nuns took her baby from her and sold him, like thousands of others, to America for adoption. Fifty years later, Philomena decided to find him.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Philomena's son was trying to find her. Renamed Michael Hess, he had become a leading lawyer in the first Bush administration, and he struggled to hide secrets that would jeopardize his career in the Republican Party and endanger his quest to find his mother.

A gripping exposé told with novelistic intrigue, Philomena pulls back the curtain on the role of the Catholic Church in forced adoptions and on the love between a mother and son who endured a lifelong separation.

©2009 Martin Sixsmith (P)2013 Recorded Books

Critic Reviews

“A searingly poignant account of forced adoption and its consequences.” ( Kirkus Reviews, starred review)
“Heartbreaking . . . a story that needed to be told.” ( The Independent)
“Emotionally compelling.” ( Library Journal)

What listeners say about Philomena

Average Customer Ratings
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  • 4 out of 5 stars
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Rivetting Story and Performance

What made the experience of listening to Philomena the most enjoyable?

The story was anchored in historical and personal truths. We see the story not only from the lens of the mother, the son, but the characters that were involved in the orphanage as well as the politicians during that time who were responsible for the clamp down of the Irish orphanages. The author, Martin Sixsmith, was able to bring the stories alive through dialog between the characters which was written in to enhance the dramatic and emotional depths of the story.

What did you like best about this story?

The story is actually a perfect accompaniment to the movie. While the movie focuses on the mother's search for the son, the story book and the audio book focuses more on the story of Philomena's son search for the mother and the consequences of not knowing his birth mother and the effects of being separated from his birth mother which affects his identity and his sense of self worth, and ultimately his relationships.

What does John Curless bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

The narrator, John Curless, did an amazing job in expressing the nuances of the book. He uses appropriate Irish accents, different voice tones to denote different characters. He was not only effective in engaging the reader with the facts but communicated the emotional nuances of the story. I would like to listen to another story or book narrated by him

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

The psychological analysis of Michael Hess, Philomena's son by Pete Nilsson and Susan Kavanaugh, Mike's closest lady friend was insightful as it gave the reader/listener deep insights into why Mike became self destructive and how this connects to his feelings about not knowing who he was. The other moment that was especially moving was the part when the author described Philomena;s second loss after she received news about her son's fate and how she was eventually dealt with the information she was given by her son's partner. These two moments of the book (which happened towards the end) touched me very deeply. I felt Philomena's pain.

18 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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Not what I expected

Would you try another book from Martin Sixsmith and/or John Curless?

No to Martin Sixmith. I expected investigative journalism and got a long - winded biography. Yes to John Curless. He is an excellent performer and easy on the ears.

What was most disappointing about Martin Sixsmith’s story?

I expected this to be a combination of a detective story and investigated journalism. The book started out fine with philomena's story, but about 9 of the first 12 hours is a biography of Philomena's son in excruciating detail. I have only 3 hours left in the book and still haven't come back to Philomena's story. I'm about to give up. Michael's story is a bit interesting but not hours and hours worth and he's not a very likeable person. I'm seriously disappointed and wish I hadn't wasted my time.

Which scene was your favorite?

I enjoyed reading about philomena's time in the convent with Anthony.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

The reader was fantastic.

5 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Very Moving Story

As most of you probably know (due to publicity about the recent film based on Sixsmith's book), this is the true story of a young Irish woman sent a to convent to give birth, and of the son who was taken away from her at the age of three--sold, in effect, to an American couple. Fifty years later, Philomena reveals her secret to her family and launches a search for the long-lost son that she has always felt has been looking for her.

In a New York Times interview about the film, Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith, says, "“We didn’t want to become overly involved in the life of Anthony Lee or Michael Hess. What appealed to me was the search for the son and the tragedy of not being able to see him grow up. That’s how Philomena experienced it; it was just out of reach, just beyond her.” This explains the main difference between the movie and the book, which focuses predominantly not on Philomena's search but on the successful but sad life of her son.

Anthony Lee was just three when he was adopted, as an afterthought, by the sister of an American bishop and her husband. The family, who had three boys of their own, had always wanted a daughter, but medical problems prevented them from trying again for one of their own. When she met Mary at Sean Ross Abbey, Marge was struck by the affectionate, dark-haired little boy who hovered over her like a protective brother. And so the two were adopted together. Like all of the young mothers at the abbey, Philomena Lee was forced to sign papers giving up all rights to her son and agreeing never to attempt to find or contact him.

It is the story of Anthony, renamed Michael Anthony Hess, that fills most of Sixsmith's pages: growing up in a strict Catholic family in the Midwest, trying to please an adoptive father who hadn't been too keen on his adoption in the first place and becoming an over-achiever as a result, struggling with his sexual identity, rising to a major post in the Reagan administration, and, always, being haunted by the memories of Ireland and the feeling that the mother he left behind was looking for him. Realizing the effect this loss has had on his life, especially on his ability to feel close to other people, Mike makes several visits to Sean Ross Abbey in hopes of learning more about his origins, but, following investigations into wrongdoing by the Irish government, the books are closed (or lost, transferred, or burned) forever.

The final chapters return to Philomena's encounter with Sixsmith and their efforts to locate Anthony, a journey that comes to a bittersweet end.

I have to agree with a reviewer who questioned the account of Michael Hess's emotions. Although Sixsmith did interview people who had known him well (including his sister Mary, former coworkers and lovers, and several friends), all of these people admit that Mike was a very private man who compartmentalized his life and rarely revealed anything personal to anyone. So while Sixsmith does a fine job of imagining what Mike may have been thinking or feeling, it came as rather a shock in the end to realize that the man himself had not been consulted in the writing of this book. (Yes, I do know why, but I'm trying to leave spoilers out of my review.) It also made me suspect that Sixsmith was promoting an agenda beyond telling Philomena's story and advocating for more open adoption laws.

But all this is in retrospect. Despite these concerns, Philomena is a moving and engaging story. Four stars here. I'm eager to see the movie version; although the emphasis shifts from Mike to his mother, that's to be expected when Judi Dench has been cast in the title role.

24 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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Misled by description

I feel like the description was very misleading. Yes. It is a very sad real life story, but I thought it would be more about the search for mother and son. The majority of the story is about details completely unrelated to the description.

18 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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Should be "Anthony/Michael: His 50 Year Search"

I liked this book, although be forewarned that this is not about Philomena (except for the final 30 minutes) but is about her son and his lifelong search for himself and his mother.

Anthony Lee/Michael is adopted after Philomena is forced to give him up at the age of three. This book is about his heart-wrenching search to find himself and understand why he was given up for adoption. The book graphically recounts life with a brutal, demanding adoptive father and bullying adoptive brothers; as well as his life-long close relationship with a loving adoptive mother and his "sister" who was also from his Irish orphanage.

This is truly a "history" book that charts the painful experiences of gay men in a Republican-dominated society where the conservative right damns homosexuality. The story transpires from the early 1950's to present day. Amazingly, Anthony Lee/Michael, a gay man, became a top executive in the Republican National Party, working to ensure the Republican party's success in garnering a majority in Congress. Like Michael's life, his career success was an irony of the worse kind. Michael's story includes the spectre of AIDS and the discrimination it held in that time.

More importantly, the book depicts in all its horror, the role of the Catholic Church in brutalizing teenage pregnant girls and enslaving them as warrens of the church until their "debt" had been repaid. The story tells the facts about how the church sold thousands of babies for large sums to adoptive US parents, doing so against the wishes of their young mothers who were brow beaten as well as physically abused by the nuns in charge of their "care."

This is a sad story, but one that deserves to be told and read. Eye opening. A bit sad. Terrifyingly real. A page turner.

19 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Disappointing

According to the book description this is about a mothers search for her child that she was forced to five up for adoption in the 50s, but that is not what the book is about. It is about the life of the son she gave up for adoption. The mothers search is briefly mentioned in the prologue. The story is about a young man coming to terms with his own sexuality, his feelings of abandonment and his efforts to try to find his mother. If this sounds interesting to you, than you will enjoy this book. The book is not bad, but it is not as described and had I known I probably would not have purchased.

2 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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NOT the story you think it is,where was Philomena?

This is not the story I was expecting or that was advertised.
There are a few chapters about Philomena's experience as a young woman and then a chapter at the end about her wanting to find her son.
All missing are: The way she felt when the baby was taken away, what she did to find him, how she told her family 50 years later, how she dealt with the church, with her father who didn't help her keep the son, with society as she reentered the world, etc etc etc.

This was described to be a journalistic investigation and account of the search of a mother for her son, it even starts that way, with the journalist being approached to find a long lost person.
Yet that story ends in the first 3 chapters. Instead this book is an account of a man and his feelings growing up an adopted orphan in America. An American man fighting his demons and narrating them with a British voice, with British expressions etc. The author didn't even manage to get that across well because even though there are very deep feelings here, the narration is very superficial ...

The story was sad but not compelling. Very disappointed.

2 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Wasn't really what I was expecting

This was an interesting story, but not really what I was expecting. I expected it to be the story of Philomena and her search for her son. I mean the book is called “Philomena…and her search.” Instead, it was pretty much a biography of her son. Since Michael Hess was homosexual and contracted AIDS in the early 1990s, I expected an amount of discussion about his homosexuality. And since Hess became a high level figure in the Republican Party and there is (and has been) a very conservative contingent of the Republican Party, I expected an amount of discussion involving politics. However, there was an inordinate amount of discussion about his sexuality and the Republican Party’s failings, mostly about his sexuality. I was just a kid in the 1980s so I don’t really remember the political and social climate of the 1970s and 1980s, but it felt like the author had a bit of a political agenda to me. Any right wing conservatives were basically categorized as “moral morons” (religious right) or hillbillies. However, overall I thought it was an interesting book and a worthwhile (although at times heartbreaking) listen. The beginning and end were captivating, but the middle of the book was slow.

A few observations…
~The story starts with Philomena’s circumstances behind her time at Roscrea and Anthony’s first few years until he was adopted at the age of three. That was the last of Philomena, except for Michael’s wondering what she was like over the years, until the final hour of the book. They crammed Philomena’s life post adoption into about ten minutes, and the investigative reporter’s search into less than 40 minutes. I have an interest in genealogy, so that was disappointing to me.
~Part one of the book was very moving and very aggravating to me that there could be that kind of corruption within the Catholic Church in “modern times.”
~I didn’t realize gerrymandering challenges were so important in bringing Republicans to office in the 1990s so I thought that was an interesting thread.
~The book is categorized as a memoir, but it is written by a retired investigative reporter who never met him and gathered information ten years after his death. I am a big fan of memoirs, but I do feel like a lot of the conversations were manufactured for dramatic effect since obviously the reporter wasn’t there.
~I am split on the whole concept of outing that was broached in the book. On one hand, I feel like it is bullying and therefore wrong and on the other, I feel like hypocrisy among our nation’s leaders should be exposed when it involves legislation they have tried to enact or prevent. Sixsmith wasn’t clear where Hess fell on that.

I had lingering questions at the end of the book. For example, Michael Hess knew Philomena’s name. Surely he had a fair amount of money from his position within the Republican party perhaps he could have hired a private investigator of some sort to try to track her down..? I was also curious about Mary (Michael’s adopted sister) and whether she was ever reunited with her birth mother. I have read that Michael’s last partner, Pete, felt that the book was misleading and that Michael wasn’t as “dark” as portrayed in the book. I didn’t think he was particularly dark, but rather lost and insecure. I am curious, therefore, what Pete felt was lacking in the telling. While Michael was dealing with AIDS, he received a note threatening to out him because of his work with the Republicans and I was curious if anything became of that or if his becoming ill headed it off. Was his being gay and did his having AIDS come out in the political arena or was it swept under the rug? When Pete & Mary discussed burial in Ireland, Pete mentioned restrictions on bodies of people who died from infectious diseases, but the book never discussed whether that became an issue. Sixsmith alluded to this being another story, but I am curious if Sixsmith has since found Michael’s father and if he ever knew he fathered a son.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

Not much about Philomena

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

More about politics and gay lifestyle and rights than about a mother's search for her son. Very little is said about her after the adoption.

Would you ever listen to anything by Martin Sixsmith again?

Maybe, the book title had not much to do with the story but some parts were interesting.

Have you listened to any of John Curless’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

I like his voice and narratopn.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    1 out of 5 stars

BOGUS book notes

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

If it had been about Philomena it might have been a good book.

What was most disappointing about Martin Sixsmith’s story?

The blurb didn't match the book at all. I wish I'd read the reviews. I would NOT have bought it.

2 people found this helpful