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By Elise Juska
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 6, 2014. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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“Gleams like a jewel.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Stunning. . . Unique and unforgettable.” — Glamour
Hailed as one of the best books of 2014 by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Elise Juska’s The Blessings is a moving novel about a tight-knit Irish Catholic clan over the course of twenty years.
The Blessings rally around one another in times of celebration and those of sorrow, coming together for departures and arrivals, while its members harbor private struggles and moments of personal joy. College student Abby ponders homesickness in her first semester away from her Philadelphia home, while her cousin Stephen commits a petty act of violence that takes a surprising turn, and their aunt Lauren faces a crisis in her storybook marriage she could never have foreseen. Through the lens of one unforgettable family, this beautifully moving novel explores how our families define us and how we shape them in return.
It didn’t take long for Abby to discover at college that most people did not have families like hers. Her roommates, Nicole and Mara, were amazed and amused by the letters cramming Abby’s mailbox in the student union—notes from her aunts and twenty-dollar bills from her uncles, newspaper articles about the Phillies and the Eagles, her little sister’s drawings of stick figures and houses—Philly row houses, tall and wobbly, crowned COME HOME SOON!—which Abby taped on the wall above her bed until it looked like one of her aunts’ refrigerator doors. Her roommates laughed—I didn’t get this much mail at summer camp. Abby had never gone to summer camp; she had never gone anywhere without her family, the entire clan, aunts and uncles and cousins renting houses within the same two blocks at the Jersey shore. They were a perennial mob at band concerts and Little League games, a discreet crowd of cameras in the living room before school dances. (“Are you serious?” Mara had paused here, a spoonful of cereal halfway to her mouth. “Were you dying?”) None of this had struck Abby as remarkable before. But since going to college, she has begun to perceive her own uniqueness, to recognize her family as something apart from other families, with its own rhythm and code. Epiphany—it was a term she’d learned in her James Joyce seminar: the sudden realization of a larger truth.
On Sunday nights, Abby sank into the sound of her parents’ voices, pressing the phone to her ear. It was 1992 and the hall phones were too public—the one time she’d talked to her mother there, voice trembling, she’d drawn sympathetic looks from the girls walking by holding flip-flops and plastic shower caddies—so she started going to the phone booth in the student union and sitting on the floor. Listening to her parents’ measured voices, their talk of ordinary things—her new cousin Max’s baptism, the eighteen points her cousin Joey scored in the basketball game against St. Cecilia’s—she was overcome with a longing so great that it doubled her over, eyes full, knees drawn to her chin. The ruff from her new parka caught in her mouth. It was so cold in New England—why had she decided to go to college in New England? Something about the brochure—the picture of the quad in the snow, and the beginnings of a faint tug that would intensify as she got older, the sense that she belonged somewhere else.
But at eighteen, in the phone booth, Abby was so homesick that her stomach hurt. She reminded herself over and over that she would be home soon for Christmas break. For Thanksgiving, she’d accepted an invitation to Mara’s house in Boston. Flights to Philadelphia were too expensive; it was a ten-hour drive, and she didn’t have a ride. Her parents had wanted her to take a bus and train—her dad had even offered to drive up and get her—but Mara’s was so much closer, and Abby was kind of pleased to have been invited. But as soon as Abby sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, she longed to be home. She missed her family, their unfancy stuffing and canned cranberry, the beat of calm silence when Pop said grace, the warm bluster of food passed around the long, crowded table, a plywood extender jammed in the middle so that one end nosed halfway across the kitchen floor. Dinner at Mara’s was depressingly small (six people, including Abby) and formal. It had actually never occurred to Abby that other people’s Thanksgivings might be like this. When she called home that night (collect, as her mother had instructed), every one of her aunts and uncles and cousins took a turn on the phone—baby Max held next to the receiver, crying, even her cousins Stephen and Joey mumbling, “Happy Thanksgiving”—and Abby chewed mercilessly on the inside of her cheek so she didn’t cry herself.
For Christmas, Abby had found a girl on the ride board, a junior with a red Jeep who lived in Harrisburg and blared The Joshua Tree on an endless loop. She dropped Abby at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where her dad picked her up to bring her the rest of the way home. And there it was: her old familiar neighborhood, old familiar street. Her driveway with its limp basketball net, her room with its pale yellow walls, the dried corsage from her senior prom drooping on her bulletin board. Her mom had stuffed the freezer with her favorite cinnamon-raisin bagels, and her little sister, Meghan, had made a sign for her bedroom door: WELCOME HOME ABBY! But to Abby’s surprise, the ache was still there—a hollow feeling in her chest when she woke up the next morning and wandered through the quiet rooms alone. Her parents were at work, her brother and sister at school. As she roamed the house, Abby noticed for the first time the weirdly perfect symmetry of the curtains in the living room, the water rings on the end table in the den where her father watched TV at night, the hugeness of the stuffed panda collection on Meghan’s bed. Within hours, she felt restless. She missed the dorm; she longed for noise. She missed the camaraderie of her roommates, the sleepy mornings piled in bed and gossiping about the night before, the clanging radiators and windows laced with frost. She felt a fleeting panic that college was all something she’d invented or dreamed, that maybe she’d never really gone. A few times, Abby dipped her nose into her suitcase, hoping to detect the scent of her dorm room or the New England cold, but she could smell only her house—impossible to define.
But tonight, ten days later, the entire family is together because Abby is about to leave again. In an hour she is driving to Nicole’s house in New Jersey, and tomorrow the two of them are headed to Boston for New Year’s Eve. Abby is wearing one of Nicole’s sweaters, a baggy oatmeal-colored J.Crew roll-neck she’s worn practically every day since she’s been home. Take it, Nicole had said as they were packing, both of them sluggishly, pleasantly, hungover. It’s your good-luck charm! The night before, Abby had worn the sweater to a party, where she’d kissed Eric Winn, an ice hockey player from Canada. He spoke with an accent: So you know, you’re one of the prettiest girls here.
The memory brings a surge of heat to her cheeks, and Abby smiles, glances around the table, pushes her hair behind her ears. No one seems to notice. Her mom is clearing the dinner dishes as Aunt Margie brings out the desserts, the last of the plastic-wrapped Christmas leftovers: half a chocolate Bundt cake, a pumpkin loaf, and all the usual holiday cookies—the powdery white snowballs, the jellied thumbprints, the lumpy almond moons. Aunt Lauren puts on water for tea, cradling baby Max to her chest, while his two-year-old sister, Elena, scoots around under the table, crawling under people’s knees and popping up in their laps: Boo!
Abby reaches for a cookie, something she would never eat in the dining hall, but at home with her family it’s as though calories aren’t real. The cookie is one Gran made, round with red-and-green sprinkles that look like crushed glass—Abby’s known this cookie her whole life and it looks the same, tastes the same. Chewing, she catches Gran watching her, eyes watery behind her thick glasses. When Abby smiles at her, she winks.
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 reported 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?
“March,” Abby says. “Spring break.”
“Good,” her aunt says, and Abby smiles. She knows they all expect she’ll move back here after graduation. But Abby has always harbored a quiet, slightly worrying suspicion that the life her family adopts so effortlessly—meeting someone local, getting married and having babies and staying in Philadelphia, carrying on all the old traditions—won’t happen for her, not so easily. Now that’s she been to college, she feels even more sure. Yet to live anywhere else is unimaginable, too.
There is a commotion at the other end of the table—her cousins Stephen and Joey and her brother, Alex, crashing into the room. They descend on the desserts in a flurry of boyness—shiny jerseys, loud swishing athletic pants, giant hands, giant appetites. Abby watches her shy, skinny brother cram a snowball cookie into his mouth, and flip his shaggy hair from his face, eyes lowered. He is not as cool as his cousins, but he tries his hardest, hiding behind the mop of hair he thinks makes him invisible but actually makes him more conspicuous.
“Drink? Cake? Can I get you a piece of cake?”
The aunts are in motion, cutting the boys generous slabs and beaming as they head back to the living room, mouths full, sucking frosting off their thumbs—Stephen thick and slope-shouldered, Joey with his bristly crew cut and confident swagger, Alex hunched and bony—where they are absorbed back into the crowd of men around the TV. Abby can just hear her roommates: You mean women in one room, men in the other? This has never struck Abby as strange before; it’s never struck her at all. In ten years, things will be different. People will have died or divorced; lines will have blurred. But for now the men are in one room, the women in the other, and this demarcation feels comforting, familiar.
From her seat at the table, Abby watches her grandfather. Pop is sitting where he always does at Aunt Margie’s: the big, soft recliner in the living room with the brown tweed arms. It is Uncle Joe’s chair, which he gives up whenever Pop is here. Tonight, on his blue sweater, Pop is wearing a sticker with a frog on it—IF YOU SMOKE, YOU CROAK! The frog dangles a cigarette from the corner of its mouth, like a waitress in a diner. A few weeks ago, Meghan had a school assembly about the dangers of smoking, and the school nurse had to call their mother because Meghan was crying so hard afterward she made herself throw up. It was surprising, Abby’s mother had recounted calmly, but Abby heard the strain of concern in her voice. It was surprising, how upset she was. Abby didn’t find it surprising. Meghan was always getting upset about things—whenever Abby went out with friends in high school, Meghan insisted she identify a “dedicated driver” (no matter that they were just going to the mall or the movies and Abby didn’t even taste a beer until her senior year). Now there’s Pop, wearing the sticker, curling on his blue sweater and losing its stick. But smoking is Pop’s only vice, and one he can’t be blamed for—they all know how he started by smoking the cigarettes in the Red Cross packages delivered to the POW camp in Germany—and he’s always fed the habit quietly, slipping out onto porches and sidewalks, his jacket collar turned up against the wind. Now he’s trying to quit, because of Meghan, though in less than two months it won’t matter anymore. In early February, at five in the morning, Abby’s hall phone will start to ring. At first she’ll sleep right through it, waking only at the sound of the sharp knock—Abby! Phone!—and will find the receiver swinging from its thick silver cord, pointed at the floor. Hi, honey. Her throat will tighten instantly; her mother never calls her honey. A heart attack. Come right home. Abby will hang up and stand frozen in the hallway for several long minutes, blinking at the tattered flyers—Live Music in the Pub! and Peer Counseling Hotline—thinking: This is how it feels to get one of these phone calls. Back in her room, she’ll study the sleeping body of Eric Winn, snoring under her cousin Elena’s crayon scribbles, which Aunt Lauren had translated in big block letters: TO ABBY, I MISS YOU! She will observe, numbly, the strangeness of these worlds colliding—the phone call and the drawings, Eric’s ruddy chest and striped boxers—and how odd it is that he will be attached to this memory forever. How, after this, things could never work out between them. How she hopes Pop isn’t up in heaven, watching. This is really weird, she says, but my grandfather just died—and Eric will be bleary but kind, and she’ll manage to hold in her tears until he stumbles out, shoes in hand, leaving a sloppy, markered SORRY on the dry-erase board on her door.
But now, tonight, everyone is still here. The talk around the table is getting slower. The women sigh, cut slivers of cake, wipe children’s noses. They ease their shoes off and flex their stockinged feet beneath the table, squeezing the carpet between their toes. Aunt Lauren is sitting next to Abby, the new baby squirming in her lap. She gave birth four months ago and still looks extra soft, extra tired. Isn’t he cute? everybody croons, though Max is red and scrawny. Too new to be cute, Abby thinks, then immediately regrets it, hoping she hasn’t doomed herself to having an uncute baby of her own.
“So when are you leaving, Abby?” Aunt Lauren asks, half turning, tucking the baby against her shoulder. She’s wearing a loose pink blouse, a small diamond necklace resting in the tan hollow of her throat. She has the kind of skin that’s tan even in winter, the kind Abby has always envied.
“Tonight,” Abby says. “After this.”
“But I’m only going to New Jersey.”
“Oh. Well. That’s not so bad,” she says. Lauren is distracted, nudging a pacifier into the baby’s mouth. In Abby’s family, babies are passed around constantly, casually, like serving bowls around a table, but Aunt Lauren likes to keep hers to herself. Aunt Lauren is an only child, Abby remembers, and it occurs to her then—the sort of awareness she may not have had before going away to college—that maybe Lauren isn’t used to being around big families. She used to be Protestant, too, but converted to Catholicism when she married Uncle John.
From downstairs, there is a sudden gust of cheering, a few hard claps. Then Uncle Patrick comes jogging into the room. The women pause and look up, expectant.
“Fourteen-nothing us,” he reports, and they nod—they don’t watch the games but they want to know the score, to gauge the mood of the room, of the city in the morning.
“Good,” Gran affirms, picking up her cup.
“More tea, Mother?” Aunt Margie says. The oldest siblings, Abby’s mother and Margie, call Gran Mother; the younger ones, the boys, call her Mom. “Anyone? Tea?”
Uncle Patrick reaches over Abby to grab a brownie, rapping his knuckles on the top of her head. The Blessings all look Irish, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, but her youngest uncle is like a flag of Ireland, with red hair and freckles so thick that in places they’re solid brown. “I hear you got some new wheels, Abs,” he says.
It is the one thing Abby has accomplished over break—a used Volkswagen, three thousand dollars. Her parents paid half. Her father paced around the guy’s driveway, picking at his fingernails, jingling change in his pocket. It wasn’t like her parents to make big purchases, but it would be easier, they reasoned, for her to get home and back.
“You like it?”
Abby smiles. “I love it.”
“Yeah. But not too used.”
“Be careful driving,” Uncle Patrick says. “Especially in that cold.”
When she first arrived home, this was her family’s primary question and greatest source of fascination: How cold is it up there? Then: And you don’t mind?
“Just let the engine warm up first,” Uncle Patrick is saying. Abby nods. She can feel her mother across the table, listening. She’s concerned about Abby driving on highways, driving in snow, driving after dark, driving period. She doesn’t want her leaving tonight, staying in Boston until intersession starts next week: This wasn’t the plan. Of course, her mother has said none of this, but Abby can tell she’s thinking it. Her mouth is drawn, her eyes sad. Even the way she’s chewing that snowball cookie—how can chewing look so pained? It will be years before Abby’s parents get divorced—not until Meghan is in college, after all her problems are out in the open—and only then will their lifelong quiet strike Abby as strange instead of soothing, and she and Alex will grow closer, out of necessity.
“Abs, is he bothering you?” Aunt Kate says, appearing at Uncle Patrick’s side.
“Me?” Patrick says. “Never.”
“Right.” Kate laughs, swatting playfully at his arm.
Abby smiles. She knows this is not really about her—she’s a means to an end, a reason to flirt—but doesn’t mind because she likes Kate, now Aunt Kate. Kate and Lauren are the same age, only eight years older than Abby, though Kate seems younger. She and Uncle Patrick got married last summer and live in an apartment in Center City. Abby likes how affectionate they are. Once, she saw Kate sitting on Uncle Patrick’s lap, his finger in her belt loop, an intimation of some private, physical ease. Her own parents never touched.
“So,” says Aunt Kate, dropping into a chair beside Abby after Uncle Patrick has headed back to the game. She’s wearing faded Levi’s and long beaded earrings that swing forward as she inspects the desserts. “Got any New Year’s Eve plans?”
Only Kate would ask. A year ago, the answer would have embarrassed Abby (she’d spent New Year’s Eve watching movies she’d rented with her mother), but this year she can answer confidently. “Yeah. A party with some college friends. In Boston.”
“Oh, I love Boston,” Kate says, and sighs. She selects a cookie and leans back in her chair. “And you’re loving school?”
“Yes.” Abby nods. “Totally loving it.”
“Savor every minute,” Kate says, shaking her head wistfully as she chews. Kate went to Bryn Mawr, unlike Abby’s mother and Aunt Margie, who didn’t go to college—It was a different time, her mother always says—or even Aunt Lauren, who went to Drexel for two years, then dropped out when she met Uncle John. “When do you declare a major?”
“Next semester,” Abby says. “I’ll do English, I think. Or maybe art history.”
“Or both?” Kate says, and Abby nods, appreciating this sense of possibility. Kate pops the rest of the cookie in her mouth and sweeps her hands together. “Have you met any nice guys yet?”
No one else in the family would venture to ask this either. Abby is grateful for the yet, as if her meeting them is one day inevitable.
“Kind of,” Abby says. She glances at her mother, who is pretending not to listen as she presses her fingertip to a plate, collecting crumbs. “One.”
She can’t help herself. She knows it’s a distortion of the truth, painting Eric Winn as anything more than a drunken hookup at a party, but who here will know the difference? All she needs to do is release a hint of him into the family and the rest will take care of itself, gather a life of its own as it gets passed around the table, accumulate legitimate weight and shape.
“Oh yeah?” Kate says. “What’s his story?”
“He’s from Canada,” Abby says, adding, “Toronto. He’s an ice hockey player.” She feels weirdly proud as she offers up this profile, a person so different from the kinds they know at home. Since going to college, Abby has frequently found herself in thrall of such details—people with lives she’s never considered, never known existed. Like Mara, who had spent Christmas skiing with her mother and stepfather. Or the girl in her dorm who has bulimia, who abruptly confided to Abby at a party that her esophagus was full of holes. Abby was alarmed and kind of excited at the same time.
Then Uncle John calls out from the living room—“Laur, can you grab her?”—just as Elena comes streaking into the room. She is wearing pink, footed pajamas and her mouth is smeared with confectioners’ sugar. She pulls up short, as if startled to find herself there. Lauren is still holding the baby—“Can someone…?” she says, a touch anxious—but Elena, lunging for a fruitcake, has already been scooped onto Aunt Kate’s lap.
“Not so fast!” Kate says, tickling her. Elena shrieks with joy. The rest of the table beams, imagining Kate with a baby of her own.
Kate calls back: “I’ve got her, John!”
It is still nearly a year before Uncle John will get sick. Next Christmas, things will feel different, quiet and careful, fraught with unspoken and unspeakable things. But for now, the cancer in Uncle John’s kidney is not yet there, or not yet known. My uncle is really sick, Abby will tell Nicole and Mara next November. Aww, they’ll say, a quick frown, a poke of the bottom lip. It is not enough. She will repeat it to other people, inappropriate people—a professor during a conference about her Chaucer essay, a random girl in the bathroom at a bar. Every time, their reactions will disappoint her. She can tell it doesn’t sound as important as it is. Uncle—in other families, it means less.
Dessert is winding down. The football game is over. The baby is tired, whimpering, a fuzzy little bundle packed into pajamas. The conversation gets slower, the pauses longer. Abby is thinking of tomorrow—of driving to Boston in her new Volkswagen with Nicole, of the jeans she bought with her Christmas money from Gran and Pop, jeans she’s planning to wear to the party, of the possibility that Eric Winn will be there.
“Do you remember Matt McCabe?” Aunt Margie says. Abby hears the somber note in her voice. The table pauses, looks in her direction. “Joe’s old friend? He played football for Saint B’s?”
They nod, oriented—Joe, football, St. B’s—and wait for the rest.
“His son just died.”
“They don’t know.” Aunt Margie shakes her head slowly, almost reverently. “No reason. The doctors have no idea. They just found him dead in their backyard.”
A note of disbelief, then murmurs of sadness around the table again, like the lapping of waves. Heads shake, spoons clink gently on teacup walls. Strange, how sadness can sound soothing. Abby remembers an experiment she learned about in Intro to Psych, about the relative improvement in the health of patients who were prayed for. She thinks about mentioning it but doesn’t.
“How old?” they ask.
“Six years old.”
“Can you imagine?”
- "[A] bighearted novel. . . . Juska's moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family gleams like a jewel."—The Philadelphia Inquirer
- "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. . . The author brings a depth of understanding to the human condition, including in her descriptions of Abby's cousin Stephen, on the road to becoming a ne'er-do-well; her uncle Patrick, a successful eye doctor, contemplating infidelity; and Meghan coming to terms with her eating disorder . . . Despite these challenges, the Blessings rally round each other-whether that attention is wanted or not-and the reader leaves feeling lucky to have spent some time in their presence."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Juska explores the collective experiences, traditions and loyalties of a close-knit family . . . a multilayered, sympathetic account of its members' lives."—Kirkus Reviews
- "We are in good hands with award-winning short story author Juska. She is a shrewd observer of human nature and has an outstanding ability to bring her characters to life on the page . . . this wonderfully readable work about family life will have you eagerly turning pages."—Library Journal
- "The Blessings are a family so real in all their sorrow, joy and complexity that they could be yours or mine. Juska's portrait of this close-knit clan is bursting with wise observations about the nature of love and belonging. I enjoyed every page."—J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times-bestselling author of The Engagements andMaine
- On Sale
- May 6, 2014
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing