The Blessings

The Blessings

by Elise Juska


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"Bursting with wise observations." -- J. Courtney Sullivan, author of The Engagements and Maine

"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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594778462
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 204,172
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Elise Juska's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Good Housekeeping, the Hudson Review, and many other publications. She is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction from Ploughshares and her work has been cited in the Best American Short Stories. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is the director of the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of the Arts.


A Conversation with Elise Juska, Author of The Blessings

The Blessings is a look inside a large, close Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia. What drew you to writing about this particular clan?

I've been trying to tell this story, or some version of this story, for quite a long time. I grew up in a big Philadelphia family (six aunts and uncles, sixteen cousins) and although the book is not strictly autobiographical, there are aspects of this family that are very familiar to me: the sense of ritual, the rhythms of the frequent family get-togethers, the constancy, the loyalty, the emphasis on tradition. In my own family, two uncles died young, with young children; in the novel, the death of John Blessing is the event that shapes the family and reverberates, in various ways, over the next twenty years. For me, finally understanding how to write this book was a matter of, first, getting older and gaining some insight about what it means to be part of a big family and, second, figuring out the novel's form.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the family—aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?

One of the dynamics that interests me in big families, and one of the things I wanted the book to explore, is the relationship between the individual and the clan. The big family functions as a whole—built on traditions, foods, rituals, shared joys and losses—but in fact, everyone in it maintains a life outside it. This may not sound like a groundbreaking revelation, but when I was younger it shook me to realize that there were parts of my life that my family didn't know—and that, if true for me, that was likely true for all of us. So the structure, the use of multiple narrators, was a way of embodying that dynamic: all these family members are, in a sense, telling one shared story—framed by John's death—but they are also telling separate stories, private stories, known only to them.

The range of characters and experiences is diverse—a troubled teenage nephew, a grandmother confronting dementia, a father realizing his daughter is suffering from an eating disorder. Was it difficult to get into the heads of such different people? Were some more challenging to write? More fun?

I think what I like most about writing fiction is that very thing: getting into the heads of people who are not myself, trying to cultivate some empathy and understanding as I imagine what their lives are like. It may be fitting, then, that the characters I most enjoyed writing were the ones whose lives deviated most from my own—like Patrick, John's surviving brother, an eye doctor who ends up contemplating infidelity. Or Stephen, John's nephew, who at sixteen starts down a bad path. These characters were challenging to write but also very surprising, especially Stephen, for whom I developed a real soft spot. Maybe that's because, unlike some of the others, whose struggles are more internal, Stephen's problems are so visible. In a big family—especially one populated by other, seemingly more well-adjusted siblings and cousins—being the one whose struggles are so public can be a difficult role.

Several early readers have commented that the book feels like it could generate a sequel. Is that something you've considered?

I love that reader feedback (I loved writing these people and would happily go on doing it!) and think I understand where it's coming from. We're introduced to numerous characters in the course of the novel, so there are plenty of people to check in with and return to. Also, because the book spans two decades—in the final chapter, the babies from chapter one are in college—we watch a generation of this family grow up, but its core stays the same. In a way, the book is about that very dichotomy: the change, the sameness. I too find myself wondering how the dynamic shifts as the next generation gets older—the cousins have kids of their own, the aunts and uncles become grandparents, the larger world undergoes some dramatic shifts—and the ways the family does and does not change.

Who have you discovered lately?

I'm always most drawn to short stories, both writing them and reading them. I recently discovered Joan Wickersham's The News From Spain, an expertly knitted collection of short stories, all of them love stories of a kind. The individual stories are linked in lovely, subtle ways; the structure is like music. I also loved Asali Solomon's collection of Philadelphia-set stories, Get Down, which manages to be both funny and heartbreaking and also wincingly realistic in its depiction of adolescents struggling to fit in.

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