Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: "The Blessings" by Elise Juska

"It's about these contradictions...having this identity as part of a big family but also this part of yourself that's separate, dealing with your own private stuff, that they never really know. Or dealing with the same stuff, just differently."

The Blessings are a large Irish Catholic family living in the Philadelphia area. Elise Juska's novel of linked chapters gives a glimpse of many of the members of this family as they deal with happiness, struggles, and tragedies—namely the death of the family patriarch and the untimely death of the oldest son. The book progresses in linear fashion through time and follows several generations of the family, from the matriarch, Helen, forced to confront grief after the deaths of both her husband and her son, John, to Helen's three surviving children and John's young widow, Lauren, to a number of Helen's grandchildren as they grow into adulthood.

These are stories of the bonds that tie us together and the unspoken hurts and petty thoughts that tear us apart. These are stories about the fulfillment of dreams and the realization that not all you've hoped for will come to fruition. You get the opportunity to experience the lives of these people alongside of them, with, in some cases, a little more knowledge about what's going to happen to them than they have.

"You hear how people's priorities change and eventually they go back to where they came from, like some kind of homing instinct. And you think it won't happen to you, but then something changes, and there you are."

I found The Blessings to be a compelling and well-drawn portrait of a family drawn together in times of happiness and sadness. I'll admit, however, that although each chapter had overlapping characters and situations, it didn't feel like one novel, but more like a collection of linked stories. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

Juska did a terrific job in imbuing her characters with unique personalities, so I had no problem keeping each of them straight even as some of them married and gave birth to their own children. As with any novel-in-chapters, some of the stories are more interesting than others, but on the whole, this is a tremendously interesting look at one family's ups and downs, and it definitely makes you look at your own family in a different light.

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