Tuesday, October 08, 2002

'Blessings' found in the storytelling

By Ann Hicks ahicks@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Reading Anna Quindlen is always a pleasure. Her characters are rich and deep, her descriptions clear and vivid.

        The author of Black and Blue and One True Thing - and a 1992 Pulitizer Prize winner for her New York Times columns -is a masterful storyteller. Her new novel, Blessings, is bound to be another best seller.

        The story is set in the present in a small ficticious town about a half day's drive from New York City. It begins one June night as a teenage couple slowly drives up a gravel road toward a sprawling country house. We can picture the darkness and feel the tension.

        Moonlight makes black shadows of the trees on the lawn. Deer nibbling grass stop to watch the car pass a small sign that simply says Blessings.

        We don't learn the couple's names. We know only that the boy drives up to the idyllic-looking house, gets out of the car and leaves a box on the garage steps.

        Skip Cuddy, the caretaker, finds the box in the morning. Inside the box, is a newborn, a girl. She is breathing.

        Skip recently spent 10 months in the county jail for driving the get-away car in a Quik-Stop robbery. He's had this job for a month, and he likes it. Could finding this child get him into trouble? Is it a parole violation? What did he know about caring for a newborn anyway? Well, that one was easy: not much.

        Lydia Blessings is the last of the Blessings and the sole resident of the big house. An 80-year-old, self-centered penny pincher, she believes the name Blessing opens any door. She met Skip in the Wal-Mart parking lot when her old Cadillac died. His smile reminded her of her late brother Sunny.

        Of course, Skip can't keep the baby a secret for long. Strangely, the seemingly straight-laced Lydia welcomes the girl into her life.

        Skip's care of the baby he calls Faith is touching. Gently and patiently - and Faith does try his patience - he tends to her needs. He frets over whether she should sleep on her tummy, side or back. He gets more attached to her with every smile and wave of her tiny fist.

        There's plenty more to the story as the author weaves in a handful of characters: Nadine, the Korean-born housekeeper; Nadine's daughter, Jennifer; Lydia's daughter, Meredith; and Skip's troublemaking bar buddies.

        We learn about Lydia's life with her parents, brother and her husband Benny.

        We discover her secrets and indiscretions, and how she came to call Blessings home. We come to know about Skip's sorry life, too.

        Blessings is a quick, easy read. The story, written in narrative form, clips along at a swift pace, despite the back and forth between characters, and present and past.

        But it is the author's attention to detail that makes her work such a pleasure to read. Take, for example, Lydia's memory of the arrival, many years before, of the ecru-colored note cards her mother mailed to her at Blessings:

        “It had been a winter day, snow thick upon the roof and trees, and in the silence broken only by the sound of logs spitting sap from the living room fireplace Lydia had looked at the cards and understood then, as surely as if they were legal documents. Her mother had decided that Lydia was to live in exile at Blessings, never again to sleep lulled by the sounds of cars struggling by in the morass of the streets of the East Side of Manhattan.”

        Ms. Quindlen's storytelling skills are superb as well. Because we readers suspect the situation with Faith can't last forever (although Skip dares to dream it will), it's hard to put this book down. Sure enough, four months after Faith's arrival, life at Blessings takes another sudden turn.ReviewBlessings


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