Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Blessings by Elise Juska: Many Voices, One Family

The Blessings by Elise Juska
Grand Central Publishing
Hardcover, 272 pages
May 6, 2014
Review Copy via Netgalley

Elise will be at the Philadelphia Free Library on Tuesday, May 6 with Akhil Sharma, and Sebastian Barry @ 7:30 pm

Main Point Books, 1041 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr will be hosting a launch party for Elise on Saturday, May 10 @ 4 pm (I'm pretty sure there will be cake and probably wine)!

Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with the statement, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ve always doubted the soundness of this premise, as entertaining and quotable as it is. Certainly unhappy people abound in literature, and families are often a big source of misery, but it’s rare that a book is really about a family qua family, miserable or happy. With her new novel, The Blessings, Elise Juska challenges these preconceptions by putting a family at the center of her story and also demolishes the notion that happy families are not worthy subjects for literary fiction.

This eponymously titled novel follows the Blessings – a large, Northeast Philadelphia Irish Catholic clan – over the course of two decades from the early 1990s until the present. We are introduced to the  extended, multi-generational cast in 1992, at a post-Christmas party viewed through the eyes of Abby, a college freshman who is preparing to return to New England later that night. Distance and exposure to classmates from different backgrounds combine to make her see that the closeness and chaos of her family she took for granted is not universal. As Abby ponders her conflicting desires  -- to stay close to or to run from her past -- Juska introduces us to Abby's parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins while foreshadowing the changes that are going to buffet the family and test its members in the coming years. Just as Abby is on the cusp of adulthood, the Blessing family is on the cusp of changes that will reverberate through their lives in ways they cannot see during this comfortable and, for Abby, too predictable, holiday gathering.

Within two months the family’s patriarch is dead. A year later, his eldest son, John, succumbs to cancer, leaving behind a young wife and two small children. These events affect choices and color the experiences of his mother, surviving siblings, his wife, his children and even his nieces and nephews. These are not the only hardships and trials the family encounters, but through it all, the Blessings support one another, maintain closeness through a ritual calendar of celebrations that keeps their idea of kinship alive, even as its members drift away from their roots in the Catholic Church and original neighborhood.

Juska’s choice to change narrative point-of-view in each chapter is a gamble that makes sense. The boundary line between a novel and a story collection can be a porous one, but Juska structures the cycle of stories here into a cohesive whole by complementing Abby’s opening by closing with the story of her cousin Elena. A toddler in the opening pages, Elena is now older than Abby was at the beginning. She has graduated from college and is preparing to travel, but in that moment of pulling away is realizing how much she shares with and values her family despite her differences from them. The cyclical structure and shifting protagonists is what make this truly a novel of the Blessing family, not just a collection of interconnected short stories. 

Despite the book's episodic nature, the various characters are threaded throughout and the sense is of a continuous narrative.  It’s often interesting to see how the Blessings perceive each other and comment on changes in character or circumstance. Juska often focuses on periods of transition – moving to a retirement home, solo parenting, divorce, and illness. Seen from a distance, these pivotal moments could feel artificial and clich├ęd, but the inner life of each central figure is given the depth that makes each person a true individual. I was often left wishing I had more time with many of them – until I was engrossed in the next tale.

The one member of the familial chorus I wished was given a chance to speak for herself is Meghan, Abby's younger sister, whose anxiety and eating disorder claim so much energy from her parents and siblings. Hers would be a difficult perspective to inhabit, but one I think would have added tension and depth that would have made the book even stronger. 

Despite her care in making each Blessing realistic and individual, there are several occasions where Juska loses her empathic distance creating, not villains exactly, but characters who sit on the outside of the inner family circle. 

In particular, she stumbles into stereotype in her depiction of Kate, the Bryn Mawr* educated wife of Patrick Blessing. Kate, while nominally Catholic, was not raised to be observant in the way the Blessings of her generation were nor is she as devoted to duty. Her family had money, while the Blessings did not. These differences, which are part of what attracts Patrick to her in the first place, end up distancing her from the rest of the family and lead to strife with her husband. It is believable that Kate’s class background and education could be a source of friction, but what I object to is that she feels assembled from a set of paint-by-number negative attributes in contrast to the beatific portraits of her sisters-in-law.

Nevertheless, what shines through The Blessings and enables it to succeed is reverence for the power of a family to survive, grow and strengthen even as it changes. Elise Juska has gives us a novel that shows that a happy, if imperfect, family is unique and worthy of our time and interest.

*I will admit that I was infuriated that Juska uses Kate’s Bryn Mawr degree as shorthand to denote an affluent, self-centered woman who uses feminism as a shield or excuse. The commitment to transforming women’s lives that permeates the culture of Bryn Mawr is not, and has never been, this reductive. 

In my experience Bryn Mawr is an institution of intense academic seriousness and the women who go there are smart, committed to intellectual inquiry and social justice. After graduation they pursue advanced degrees and careers in law, medicine, social justice, academia, science and the arts because it is important to them to make a difference to themselves and the world. Juska’s Kate is far more materialistic, and far less ambivalent about leaving a career to raise a family, than the Bryn Mawr graduates I know. Nor does going to Bryn Mawr equate to not cooking – some of the best cooks I know are Mawrters (yes, that is a real word).

There are certainly any number of women living in the suburbs of Philadelphia that are home to Bryn Mawr, who, at least externally, resemble the woman Juska portrays here, they just didn’t go to Bryn Mawr.

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