“It didn’t take long for Abby to discover at college that most people did not have families like hers.” So begins Elise Juska’s beguiling new novel, THE BLESSINGS. Everyone has that moment when they see their family as they truly are --- and how they appear to other people. It usually occurs when one leaves home for the first time and returns for a visit. It’s as if you can see your family with fresh eyes --- flaws, foibles and all.
Young Abby, home from college for the Christmas break, realizes how capacious, accommodating and loving her family is. Told from multiple points of view over the course of 20 years, we experience life in the Blessing family from several of its members --- daughters, wives, sons, husbands, grandchildren and in-laws --- each having their say and, in doing so, illuminating the width and breadth of one Philadelphia clan, along with their triumphs and tragedies.
"Fans of writers like Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and even Richard Yates will revel in Juska’s resplendent novel detailing two decades in the life of the Blessing clan."
The signposts of their story are the milestone events that either bind or strain. First is the passing of the family’s patriarch, John Blessing, in his sleep. His wife, Helen, knows the rituals of a Catholic death: call the children, call the funeral parlor, and then call family friends. In looking back on that night, she recalls how “she knew immediately that he was gone. She felt the air change in the room, the sudden stillness. She gave herself one hour: the last hour it would be just the two of them. She talked to him, prayed for him, cried and smoothed his hair and straightened his clothes. Then she picked up the phone.”
Her children and grandchildren gather at her house to pay their final respects. The gravity and kindness of this moment is not lost on Lauren, a relative newcomer to the family since marrying John Blessing, Jr.: “She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.”
We follow the Blessings through deaths, births, schools, jobs, marriages, divorces, fertility struggles, eating disorders, juvenile delinquency, parenting issues, aging parent issues, careers, career changes, relationships, you name it. Starting with the death of John Blessing, Sr., we continue to watch over his Helen, her grown children (John Jr., Patrick, Ann and Margie) and their children; from holidays at the family’s house in Northeast Philly to summer weekends at the Jersey Shore. We lovingly witness the major events and the minutiae --- as Lauren observed, the “grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.”
Fans of writers like Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and even Richard Yates will revel in Juska’s resplendent novel detailing two decades in the life of the Blessing clan. The story carefully balances the highs and lows of the everyday through the author’s exquisite prism. The oldest of the younger generation, Elena, knows well the gift she’s been given: “Elena frequently hears her friends complain about their families, but she’s never been that stupid. She knows how lucky she is to have the family she does. As different as they are…she’s always loved being near them, all of them.” And we, the readers, are left feeling the same gratitude.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on May 9, 2014