Award-winning columnist and bestselling author Anna Quindlen, currently a columnist for Newsweek, won a Pulitzer for her "Public and Private" columns for The New York Times a decade ago. One of her books, One True Thing, was made into a film, and won Meryl Strep a best actress Academy Award nomination. The others, Object Lessons and Black and Blue, were also acclaimed. She has also written two books for children, The Tree That Came to Stay and Happily Ever After.
Blessings, her fourth novel, is the story of a teenage couple, who wrap their newborn in an old flannel shirt and leave her outside the garage of a mansion called Blessings. The couple studied the house months ago and decided that this was the best opportunity for their child. They figure that octogenarian Lydia Blessing, the only remaining family member, will adopt the baby. Instead fate intervenes, and the caretaker, Skip Cuddy, recently released from jail, finds her and decides to keep her.
Quindlen’s journalistic instincts are apparent in her painstakingly detailed observations and intelligent analysis. In an interview, she has said that the setting of Blessings is based on the house in Pennsylvania where she grew up. The emotional attachment and nostalgic yearning for a time gone by resonates in the novel. The exterior beauty of the house, the serenity of the natural setting where the house is nestled and the traditions of a family, play almost a big a role, as many of the characters do:
"The white house, the striped awning, the brown barn, the silvery water, the green hills…everyone who had ever visited Blessings had felt it was a place apart...[It] looked like a place where people would sit on the terrace at dusk, sip a drink and exult in the night breeze over the mountain, pull a light cardigan…at one time or another, in fact, all of these things had been true but not for some time…"
However, times have changed. Lydia lives frugally with only a maid, Nadine, who doesn’t even stay overnight. But, of course, the young couple have "convinced themselves that appearance was reality."
"Blessings" has many meanings. The house is a blessing, the presence of the family has been a blessing to the town, the family has loved the house for half a century, a baby is a blessing, to be able to have the baby is a blessing for Skip, in fact to be given a chance to work for Lydia, is a blessing. On a deeper level, we have many blessings and we need to be thankful for them.
There are two parallel stories, that of Lydia and that of Skip. They seem at odds with each other, almost as though they are from two different planets. The former was raised in privilege, prestige and wealth; the latter has survived on his wits. Yet they are linked by some inherent decency, love of the land, and their unerring need for routine. Lydia was
a person who honored tradition. And Skip learnt to respect that. A creature of habit,
She had breakfast served on ‘a small drop table on the corner of the porch, overlooking the pond in summer and in winter, in the library.’
Both these locations allowed her to "look out" at her "substantial property and keep a close eye on anyone working" on it. Meanwhile, Skip, who serves as a caretaker and lives upon the garage, eats whatever he can find; once he ate "a stale donut that had gone hard around the edges" before he starts to trim the hedges, weed the grass and cut firewood.
It seems highly unlikely that a man in his early twenties, having always been a lonely child whose mother died while he was a little child, whose father left them, who was raised by relatives, would even consider the idea of keeping the child and raising her. He names her Faith and keeps her in a bottom bureau drawer, buys formula and diapers from Walmart with a baby book, spends sleepless nights shushing her and hiding her from Lydia, grumpy and set in her ways. He works with the baby hidden in his shirt.
The inevitable happens. Lydia discovers the baby and asks her old family doctor to vaccinate her. Just when things seem to have worked out, there are some twists and turns.
Skip has to give up Faith to her young, sullen mother Paula. As he watches the clueless mother handle her baby, he tries to explain what it means to be, even temporarily, a parent.
"…Look at her like she’s not yours, like you’ve never seen her before, she does these entire amazing thing," he tells her.
Her reaction is a shrug and a question: "So, if you cared about her so much, why did you give her up?"
And he corrects her. "I didn’t give her up. You gave her up. I gave her back."
Quindlen's talent lies in creating stories that touch the heart but retain reality. She is far too logical and too accomplished a journalist, even in her fiction, to leave loose ends. This book is another feather in her cap.