As expected, her hot-off-the-presses “Blessings“ is now shooting to the top of the bestseller lists.
It follows the novels “Object Lessons,“ “One True Thing“ and “Black and Blue“; the nonfiction books “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,“ “Living Out Loud,“ “Thinking Out Loud,“ and “How Reading Changed My Life“; and two childrens books, “The Tree That Came to Stay“ and “Happily Ever After.“ Her New York Times column “Public & Private“ won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and she now appears every other week in Newsweek.
“Blessings“ is about exactly that, and much more in the form of the remarkable nature of things that become blessings in our lives, particularly when they are unexpected, perhaps even unwanted. Quindlens plot quickly drew “E.T.“ comparisons, because it centers around an endearing orphaned creature adopted by an unlikely caregiver who doesnt want to love the little being, but cant help doing so. All the while, sinister authorities lurk in the background, ready to disrupt their growing happiness.
That, however, is a highly simplistic version of the plot, which is far more textured and complicated, and, at times, even heart-wrenching. In “Blessings,“ the foundling is a newborn who has been abandoned by her parents in the garage of a vast estate owned by a cranky, wealthy, 80-year-old, widowed matriarch named Lydia Blessing. The baby is discovered in a box by Lydias handyman, a young ex-con named Skip Cuddy, who, for reasons even he doesnt understand, wants to keep her.
He does so, secretly, for a few days, when Lydia becomes involved, and against her better judgement, Lydia decides to assist him in the effort. For a time, Lydia, Sip, and the baby theyve named Faith are a family, something which redefines who each one of them are. Ultimnately, though, they will be betrayed.
What gives the book much of its power is Quindlens finely-tuned senses for details. As the story begins, she sets the stage for the abandonment of the baby with a mood that is so palpable and dense that one can envision the landscape as it unfolds on the page:
“In the early hours of June 24 a car pulled into a long macadam drive on Rolling Hills Road in the town of Mount Mason. The driver cut the engine, so that as the car rolled down the drive and into the oval turnaround between the back of the big white clapboard house and the garage, it made only a soft swishing sound, like the whisper of summer rain those first few moments after the dirty gray storm clouds open. There were deer in the fields that surrounded the house, cropping the rye grass with their spotted fawns at their flanks. But the fields stretched so far from the drive on either side, and the deer kept so close to the tree line, that the does did not even raise their divot heads from the ground as the car slid past, although one or two stopped chewing, and the smallest of the babies edged toward their mothers, stepping delicately sideways, en pointe on their small hooves. “I dont feel that good,“ said the young woman in the passenger seat, her hair veiling her face. The moonlight slipping at an oblique angle through the windows and the windshield of the car picked out what there was of her to be seen: a suggestion of the whites of her eyes between the curtains of her hair, the beads of sweat on her arched upper lip, the silver chain around her neck, the chipped maroon polish on her nails a jigsaw puzzle of a girl, half the pieces not visible. She was turned away from the driver, turned toward the door as though she were a prisoner in the car and, at any moment, might pull the door handle and tumble out. The fingers of one hand played with her full bottom lip as she stared at the black shadows of the trees on the rough silver of the lawns, silhouettes cut from construction paper. At the edge of the drive, halfway down it, was a small sign, black on white. Blessings, it said. Blessings was one of those few places that visitors always found, on their return, even more pleasing than the pleasant memories they had of it. The house sat, big and white, low and sprawling, in a valley of overgrown fields, its terrace gardens spilling white hydrangeas, blue bee balm, and bushy patches of catnip and lavender onto a flagstone patio that ran its length. The land surrounding it was flat and rich for a long ways, to the end of the drive, and then the stony mountains rose around as though to protect it, a great God-sized berm spiky with pine trees.“
Quindlen coaxes a surprising amount of density out of seemingly simple statements, and their accompanying credibility gives this work much of its strength. She addresses complex issues like paternity, making hard, unpleasant choices, and the miracle of life in deft ways that are accessible, yet render fresh insights worth taking the time to ponder. When Skip and Lydia marvel over what a new baby looks like, for example, Quindlen writes that “The deep pleat in the fat at her elbow made her arms look muscled.“ Phrases like that are so beautifully constructed that they are worth rereading, and remembering.
There are other familiar Quindlen themes at work here, such as social contrasts, redemption, and sacrifice, but “Blessings“ takes her into decidedly new territory, which makes for a wonderful reading experience. Those who enjoy her work will anticipate that, but if you havent had a chance to yet read something by this fine writer, dont let “Blessings“ slip by.