The Blessings (Grand Central, 2014) by Elise Juska is beautifully written novel about a sprawling family from Philly. The tone here is delicate, emotionally rich and somewhat elegiac, reminding me of Alice McDermott. The Blessings are a closeknit Catholic family and those that marry in must get with the program. All holidays and family anniversaries will call for a gathering of the clan. In the first chapter we meet Abby, the youngest daughter, a college freshman who is home for Christmas. She has pined for her family. Yet being home them makes Abby realizes how much college has changed her. She suffers "an unsolvable ache. When she is away, she'll miss her family; when she's with her family, she'll miss herself."
Every chapter drops readers deeply into one or another family member's life: a young widow whose husband dies young, a troubled teen, a pre-med student. I had to get used to that ever-changing character rhythm, but the end result is a richly nuanced family portrait. Abby's older brother John dies when his two children are young. This tragedy marks every family member in a different way. The Blessings will gather together every year on the anniversary of his death. In times of sickness and death, the family shows up with casseroles, babies to rock and hands to hold. Maybe that sounds like a Hallmark movie, but this novel is much more richly complicated than any tv movie could ever be. I did at times feel a shade too sad reading about various Blessing family struggles, no matter how soulful some of the resulting epiphanies were. Then the last chapter brought me full circle. I felt uplifted, and that I could say goodbye to the Blessings with a full heart, trusting they would thrive and persevere. In fact, I would love to red another novel about the Blessings! May it be so....
Life behind the scenes of a rather staid Manhattan literary agency emerges colorfully in My Salinger Year (Knopf, 2014), well-told by English major Joanna Rakoff. Her starry-eyed innocence about her employment at the agency does not last long. Her boss is a dragon from hell, and although this is the 90s, there are no computers in sight. One of her boss's writers is none other than J. D. Salinger, "Jerry", whose fan mail and phone calls Joanna often fields. Eventually she gets to meet the man, and even further on into the memoir, she finally reads all his books while her no-good boyfriend has gone off to a wedding without her. She is amazed at how much she loves his books and becomes a die-hard fan. I so enjoyed this literary bildungsroman; it really hit the spot. One read-alike comes to mind: Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, 2010) by Marjorie Hart. The last memoir I read and enjoyed that had anything to do with Salinger was At Home in the World (Picador, 1998) by Joyce Maynard.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, 2014), the eighth novel by Gabrielle Zevin seems to be on everyone's 2014 must-read list. What's not to love when a somewhat curmudgeonly widower/bookstore owner adopts a toddler named Maya who is left in his store and subsequently reaps the healing powers of love? I enjoyed every moment of this quirky tale, its Alice Island, Massachusetts setting and sometimes whimsical characters. The bookstore ambiance is irresistible and short book reviews/book talks (actually letters to his daughter) written by A. J. at the start of every chapter enhance the verisimilitude. Truly a must read novel for bookaholics.