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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Blessings
The Blessings
by Elise Juska

Hardcover (6 May 2014), 272 pages.
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN-13: 9781455574032
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When John Blessing dies and leaves behind two small children, the loss reverberates across his extended family for years to come. His young widow, Lauren, finds solace in her large clan of in-laws, while his brother's wife Kate pursues motherhood even at the expense of her marriage. John's teenage nephew Stephen finds himself involved in an act of petty theft that takes a surprising turn, and nephew Alex, a gifted student, travels to Spain and considers the world beyond his family's Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Through departures and arrivals, weddings and reunions, The Blessings reveals the interior worlds of the members of a close-knit Irish-Catholic family and the rituals that unite them.

The Blessings

If every family has a certain kind of music, Abby's is the murmur of sympathy around a dining room table. It starts in the pause after dinner and before dessert, when the men migrate to the living room and turn on sports and the women surround the wreckage, spilled crumbs and crumpled napkins and stained wineglasses. They pinch lids from sugar bowls and dip teabags in hot water, break cookies in half and chew slowly. They trade stories of other people's hardships. This is the melody, the measure, of her family: the response to sad things.

"Fifty-six years old," her mother is saying.

This story is one Abby already knows. One of their neighbors, Mr. Whelan, collapsed and died the day before Christmas Eve. A stroke. Fifty-six. Two sons in college. Terrible. They shake their heads. A shame.

Abby arranges her face into a sympathetic expression, but she is thinking about Eric Winn. Mara had heard that he might be in Boston tomorrow, at the party. It was at Chris Teppler's house; Eric and Chris both played on the JV hockey team. As Abby watches her mother talking, she wonders if Eric Winn could be sitting around right now with his own family—in a house somewhere in Canada. Is he thinking about the party? Could he—possibly—be thinking about her?

Then her sister, Meghan, enters the room, and their mother stops talking about Mr. Whelan, because the night he died Meghan was so upset she couldn't sleep. "Football is stupid," Meghan announces, probably hurt that the boys aren't paying attention to her. She tags along with them relentlessly, especially Joey, the cool one.

"How about some dessert, Meg?" their mother says, extra brightly, just as Elena runs in and flings herself around Meghan's knees.

"Elena!" Meghan exclaims, scooping her up in both arms and hoisting her awkwardly onto one hip. "Do you want a cookie, Elena? Do you, cutie?" she says, doing her best imitation of a grown-up, and before Aunt Lauren can protest, one moment dissolves into the next—Elena taking a big bite of a snowball cookie, Meghan marching back downstairs with Elena in her arms, the kettle whistling, the baby beginning to cry.

"So," Aunt Margie says, and turns to Abby, wiping two powdery fingers on the napkin in her lap. "When are you heading back?" The party is at Aunt Margie's house tonight, hers and Uncle Joe's, and it's marked by all the usual Aunt Margie things: the chalky pink and green mints on the coffee table, the onion dip in the snowflake-shaped bowl, the wooden Jesus hanging on a cross above the toaster oven.

"Tonight," Abby says. "After this."

"Oh?" Aunt Margie reaches instinctively for the little gold cross around her neck, worries it between two fingers. She has the same pink, freckled complexion as Abby's mother—as Abby herself—but where Abby's mother is tall, broad-shouldered, Aunt Margie is slight, tense and thin. "Tonight? Really?"

"But only to New Jersey," Abby explains. "One of my roommates lives in New Jersey. Tomorrow we're going to Boston. For New Year's Eve."

Her aunt is nodding, still rubbing the necklace. Abby doesn't mention the party, not after all her mother's questions—whose house and where does he live and will his parents be home? She'd had to lie about that last part (Mara had re- ported that Chris's parents would be out of town), though to mention Chris Teppler at all felt a little like lying, or at least pretending, Chris Teppler who Abby had never spoken to directly and who almost definitely didn't know her name.

"It's just two hours," Abby adds. "To New Jersey, I mean."

"And when are you coming home again?" Aunt Margie asks.

There will be other questions, but these will be the main questions, asked over and over tonight and for the next twenty years—when are you leaving and when are you coming home again?

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Blessings by Elise Juska. © 2014 by Elise Juska. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. by Elise Juska. Copyright © 2014 by Elise Juska. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The joys and trials of a close-knit Irish Catholic family illuminate the many facets of the ties that bind.

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In the opening chapter of Elise Juska's The Blessings, college freshman Abby has returned to Philadelphia to spend Christmas with her large extended Irish-Catholic family, her first time coming home for the holidays. Like many college students, she surprises herself by already feeling somewhat distanced from family traditions, an observer rather than merely an unthinking participant. Near the end of the chapter, as Abby gathers her things to drive back to Boston for a New Year's party with friends, her aunt Margie pulls her aside and says to her niece, "It's a good moment...when everyone is okay." Margie's observation can be read as an affirmation of the Blessing family's good fortune, a restating of their joyful holiday celebrations. But it can also, of course, be read as foreboding, an acknowledgment that happiness, even just "okay-ness," is temporary at best.

The transitory nature of contentment, even the appearance thereof, is certainly explored at length in Juska's novel. For even as the Blessings are celebrating their family reunion that Christmas, Abby's grandpa has only two months to live before dying of a heart attack, and Abby's uncle, John Blessing, a young husband and father, is already harboring the kidney cancer that will kill him only a little over a year later. The rippling reverberations of these tragedies affect nearly everyone in this close-knit family - the kind of family that attends everyone's Little League games and takes photos at everyone's prom, that gets together to celebrate happy occasions and commemorate sad ones, that continually asks each other "when are you coming home again?"

Beginning in 1992 and extending to the present, The Blessings is composed of nearly a dozen well-developed chapters, each of which focuses on a different member of the family facing a crisis large or small. There's Dave, Abby's father, who (in a chapter somewhat reminiscent of Tom Perrotta's Little Children) focuses on being a productive member of his neighborhood watch program even as his own family falls apart behind closed doors. There's Alex, Abby's younger brother, who realizes while on vacation in Spain that he can never love a woman who doesn't understand his family. And there's Patrick, John's younger brother, who finds professional and personal success in the years after John's death but is desperately tempted to throw it all away.

Throughout the novel, right up until the affecting final scene, Juska explores the paradox of family—how it is the thing that both stifles and sustains you, how it can be simultaneously predictable and unexpected, stable and fragile. Because of the novel's long time frame and shifting focus from one family member to another, it lacks a traditional plot, other than the storyline of a family's continual evolution over time, grounded by holidays, funerals, celebrations, and other gatherings. Instead of a seamless overarching narrative, each chapter reads like a short story, and the result is the best kind of family portrait—one in which you know each member's foibles and flaws and yet love them anyway.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

Library Journal
This wonderfully readable work about family life will have you eagerly turning pages to find out what happens to characters about whom you really care.

Kirkus Reviews
Juska's story is like leafing through an old family photo album, where typically unremarkable moments are captured in black and white. What makes the album unique isn't its contents but the way each photo abuts or overlays the next.

This heartfelt tribute to the ups and downs of a large, devoted family is warm, uplifting, and recommended for readers from families of all sizes.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Several generations of the Blessings, a Philadelphia-based, Irish-American family, come beautifully to life in a deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together.

Author Blurb J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times-bestselling author of The Engagements and Maine
Juska's story is like leafing through an old family photo album, where typically unremarkable moments are captured in black and white. What makes the album unique isn't its contents but the way each photo abuts or overlays the next.

Author Blurb Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing and Emily, Alone
In the tradition of Elizabeth Berg's and Alice McDermott's work, The Blessings is a knowing portrait of a sprawling Irish-American family in Philly across the last thirty years, in all their shared strength and separate weaknesses...the ties that bind are never simple, and often painful, but as one daughter acknowledges, 'these are the hidden intimacies, the private exchanges, on which she builds her life.'

Print Article

Multi-generational Portraits of Family

The Blessings is a novel, but it's also a portrait —an ensemble in which assorted members of three generations reveal various complexities and challenges. Here is a handful of other books that also offer multi-generational stories about family.

Charming Billy Charming Billy by Alice McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998. It opens at the funeral of Billy Lynch, a working-class Irishman and hopeless drunk. The story of Billy's life and death is revealed slowly, through the lives of the friends and families who knew him best. Narrated by Billy's cousin Dennis's daughter, who professes detachment but gradually becomes emotionally involved, McDermott's masterpiece is a complex portrayal of an individual and family's ambiguities.

The End of the Point The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver is as much a portrait of a place—an insular community of summer people on Cape Cod—as it is a portrayal of a family. The novel traces the wealthy Porters' time on the Point from the 1940s to the late 1990s, revealing issues of class difference, generational tensions, and environmental pressure along the way. Graver shows the reader a sheltered place ostensibly protected from current events - but ultimately buffeted by their effects - both directly and through the lives of the people who populate the Point year after year.

Palisades Park Palisades Park by Alan Brennert narrates the story of a very particular kind of family, one that evolves in parallel with the New Jersey amusement park of the novel's title. Extending from the early 1920s until the 1970s, Brennert's novel describes one small unit - young carnival concessionaire Eddie Strepka, his wife and daredevil daughter - but it also shows how the amusement park's eccentric staff serves as a kind of family for all the misfits and dreamers who call the park home.

Check out BookBrowse's "Generational and Family Sagas" theme to explore more in this vibrant category.

By Norah Piehl

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