Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: The Blessings by Elise Juska

There is a well known poem that says the most important part of life is what happens in the dash between the birth and death dates on a gravestone. How you live your life and the people you share that time with are more important than the beginning and the end. Everything that defines a person is contained within that dash. The other is just two dates on a calendar. In Elise Juska's latest novel, The Blessings, she captures the everyday and the extraordinary moments of the dash in many of the people in a close-knit family in Philadelphia.

The Blessings are a large, chaotic, Irish Catholic family living just outside of Philadelphia. They are three generations of a family like any other. They are a community related by blood, one where the members share their lives but also keep secrets from each other. They struggle and they celebrate. They suffer tragedy and they rejoice. In short, they are extraordinary for being so common. Moving through time, the novel is really self-contained short stories about different family members all threaded together by their common experience and the pull of kinship. The major shared touchstone for the Blessing family seems to be the early death from cancer of one of the sons, John Blessing, who leaves behind a wife and small children. John's death resonates through the rest of the stories even decades after it occurred, continuing to have an impact on his siblings, nieces, and nephews as well as his own immediate family.

With each chapter focusing on a different member of the family and their own personal struggles within the larger context of the family, there is a lack of clear narrative arc here. And while connecting everyone through John's death is a good idea, sometimes it is a little forced to make clear how that pivotal event applies to each family member and their continuing choices. The life situations that the Blessings face are those that so many of us face: birth, life, death, marriage, divorce, infidelity. There is some happiness but more sadness and resignation than anything.  In many of the chapters, the characters feel weary, as if life and circumstance has bowed them. The writing about it all though, is beautiful and well done. Juska has created a family that is incredibly familiar, full of characters like people to whom all of us are related. And there is a love and heart to the family, even if their collective feeling is based more in sadness and sympathy than in joy. What Juska has done beautifully is to illuminate the dashes in all of her characters lives.  She show that real life is in the small details more than the big moments but it is the big moments that come to define us, as it does in the Blessing family.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts