By Elise Juska
Grand Central. 262 pp. $24.
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Reviewed by Martha Woodall
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy observed: "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That may be true, but lots of families fall somewhere in between on that continuum: sometimes happy, sometimes not.
In Elise Juska's bighearted novel, the Blessing family from Northeast Philadelphia occupies that middle ground. Three generations of Blessings in Juska's family portrait are recognizable and real. And most of them get a say in recounting what happens over the course of two decades, including sorrow, infidelity, divorce, and death, as well as birth, joy, love, and celebration.
Each of the 11 chapters is told from the perspective of a different member of the mostly Irish Catholic clan, and Juska deftly switches among characters as they offer their views of events and of one another amid the shuffling of roles and responsibilities as the family is reshaped by time.
The novel opens in 1992 when Abby, 18, is about to return to college in New England after spending Christmas at home. "If every family has a certain kind of music, Abby's is the murmur of sympathy around a dining room table," the author tells us.
She is the first to venture far from home, and the trip is the first time she has set foot in Philly since the fall. It gives her an ideal vantage point to introduce the Blessings. She's been to classmates' homes and realizes that not all families are like hers. The Blessings celebrate every holiday together with ritualized menus, spend every August in neighboring rented houses at the Jersey Shore, and act as a familial booster club. "They were a perennial mob at band concerts and Little League games, a discreet crowd of cameras in the living room before school dances."
Back in Philadelphia, Abby is seeing the swirl of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as if for the first time. She also experiences what she describes as "an unsolvable ache. When she's away, she'll miss her family; when she's with them, she'll miss herself."
The years roll by, and other chapters provide the perceptions of Abby's parents, Ann and Dave; her brother, Alex; and her troubled cousin Stephen. A few aunts and uncles weigh in, and Juska winds up her narrative from the viewpoint of Abby's cousin Elena.
Glimpsed in the early pages as an energetic 2-year-old in pink, footed pajamas, Elena has become a 22-year-old artist. As a college graduation gift, Abby has flown her to Boston for a visit.
"They're almost twenty years apart, but they've always been close," Elena observes. The two share a curiosity about the wide world, a thirst for art, and an appreciation of kin.
For her senior thesis, Elena used shoe boxes to make dioramas using found objects and family photographs. She called the project "Where We Live."
Juska, whose previous novels include One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, directs the creative-writing program at the University of the Arts. She's a gifted writer with an ear for dialogue and a knack for creating recognizable characters.
With The Blessings, she has used her skills to craft a Philly-centric tale replete with references to the Budd plant, Wawa, Roosevelt Boulevard, City Line Avenue, and Rittenhouse Square. But locals may bristle at Juska's insistence on calling Chestnut Hill a "suburb."
Her decision to forgo a central character means readers cannot attach to any one person, but the approach works here. Juska's moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family gleams like a jewel.
Elise Juska, "The Blessings"
7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Admission is free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org
4 p.m. Saturday at Main Point Books, 1041 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr. Information: 610-525-1480.EndText