As an only child, my fascination with large families in fiction stretches back to the Marches, the Moffats and the All-of-a-Kinds.

More recently, Jennifer Close’s The Smart One and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins catapulted me into chaotic family-soaked gatherings (the latter was one of my favourite reads in 2013).

Juska Blessings

Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group, 2014

Elise Juska’s novel differs from these in structure, but there are many similarities thematically and artistically.

The opening segment is narrated by Abby Blessing, who has come home for college at Christmas.

With emotional and geographic distance between Abby and her family for the first time, she is beginning to adjust her perspective about what family means to her and how it differs from her friends’ families.

The change is still unfolding, and Abby has only taken a step or two away, but this is just the distance necessary to make room for the reader alongside to observe the family as they gather together.

Members of her family would probably interpret the segment’s title, “Relief”, as a reflection of the difficulties that Abby experienced in her first weeks away at school.

And it’s true: Abby was relieved to leave the coast behind and return to Philadelphia for the holiday.

But the author has chosen the word carefully.

For Abby is also relieved to pull away from the house and drive towards the parts of herself that she hadn’t realized existed until she went to college.

And for the first time, she is viewing her family from the outside, so that they appear in relief against a familiar backdrop that she now views with fresh eyes.

“It is the beginning of what will become an unsolvable ache. When she’s away, she’ll miss her family; when she’s with her family, she’ll miss herself.”

Readers, too, learn something from this first segment.

Time is measured differently in this novel, with the kind of elasticity that those quick scenic shifts in film display so brilliantly.

The timeline will shift and readers will sometimes be required to make adjustments, to mentally calculate gaps and make allowances for the unexplained.

“That’s what happens in families – things shift, openings appear, roles that need filling.”

The opening chapter is firmly rooted in a single evening, as Abby prepares to drive back east to spend New Year’s Eve with friends not family. But readers learn that structurally The Blessings is going to be slippery, even while immersed in that evening, in Abby’s perspective.

“It will be years before Abby’s parents get divorced” and in “early February…Abby’s hall phone will start to ring” and it is “still nearly a year before Uncle John will get sick”.

And not only the timeline shifts, but the voice shifts deliberately and dependably in each segment.

There are significant changes to come, after this opening segment, so those who want to stay in this comfortable family holiday scene would be best to set aside the novel at this point (and that’s entirely possible, for the arc of the story satisfies at this level).

But that would overlook not only Elise Juska’s intent, but also the ultimate strength of the Blessing family.

“They trade stories of other people’s hardships. This is the melody, the measure of her family: the response to sad things.”

Just as one character hears a conversation from the next room amplified through the glass of a fishtank against the wall, Elisa Juska depends upon universal experiences and preoccupations to draw readers into the story.

As with every family, there are some rough bits. At times one of the perspectives slips or a detail jars. A middle-aged woman has eyesight sharp enough to deduce at a distance there is a single strand of hair tangling an elastic. A mother manages to climb out of a pool using a ladder and still grips her child with both hands. A sudden change in format, numbered bits rather than full-on prose, could have been explained in conjunction with that narrator’s outlook but, instead, feels simply random. But families are inherently imperfect too.

In her exploration of love and loss, Parting Gifts, Anne Hines makes this observation of families:

“Our job is to illuminate for each other the most gaping, glaring places in our individual personal makeup where we could stand the most improvement. Needless to say, we do not like this. Which is why the job has to be done by people you are biologically chained to, those you can never truly escape regardlesss of time, distance or the benefits of call display.”

This kind of endurance and devotion is evident in the Blessing family too, though the gaping and glaring are consistently tempered by a solid undercurrent of affection, even in the harshest moments, and characters are more likely to wink than holler.

Have you read Elisa Juska’s work before? Is this novel on your reading list?

Companion Reads:
Bonnie Burnard’s The Good House (2000)
Greg Kearney’s The Desperates (2013)
Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Arrivals (2011)