Blessings, the bestselling novel by Anna Quindlen, begins when, late at night, a teenage couple drives up to the estate owned by Lydia Blessing and leaves a box.
In this instant, the world of the estate called Blessings is changed forever. The story of Skip Cuddy, the Blessings caretaker, who finds a baby asleep in that box and decides he wants to keep her, and of matriarch Lydia Blessing, who, for her own reasons, decides to help him, Blessings explores how the secrets of the past affect decisions and lives in the present; what makes a person, a life, legitimate or illegitimate, and who decides; the unique resources people find in themselves and in a community. This is a powerful novel of love, redemption, and personal change by the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer about whom The Washington Post Book World said, “Quindlen knows that all the things we ever will be can be found in some forgotten fragment of family.”
“A polished gem of a novel…lovingly crafted, beautifully written.”
—The Miami Herald
“A well-told story of love and redemption.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“[A] richly imagined novel of the transforming power of love.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Readers…will be rewarded by a story they cannot put down.”
Q: Was there a particular place that sparked the idea for you to write Blessings? Where or how do you find inspiration for your novels, and how do you move from that kernel of an idea to a fully-developed story?
A: The physical place called Blessings was very loosely based, when I began, on a place my husband and I have out in the country. But, as so often happens in novels, the fictional location very quickly outstripped the literal place and took on a life of its own. At a certain point, you say to yourself, well, I’m putting in a rose garden here or a pond there. There’s a kind of liberating moment in fiction writing when you realize you were sitting on a rock of real life and suddenly the creative imagination spreads its wings and lifts off. Most of those moments in this book came when I pushed away from a place I knew and took off for a place I invented and then came to know.
Q: In Blessings you address issues of great social importance regarding the formation and preservation of family. What opinions about the nature of family, the legitimacy of parenthood/childhood, and the bonds in community do you hope this book will convey? In your opinion who should have kept the baby?
A: I think nature/nurture questions are intrinsically interesting no matter which side of the fence you fall on. I think it’s clear that I believe the right of parenthood can be conferred simply by care and love. In some fashion Skip will always be Faith’s father, certainly more than her biological father. But one of the things he feels keenly is that blood has a strong pull, and that motherhood is powerful. And those sentiments lead to the action of the book, both for him and for Mrs. Blessing. I think Skip does the right thing within the moral context of everyday life. Whether it’s ultimately the right thing for Faith–well, only time will tell. I think doing the right thing is what this book is really about, and the sad true fact that you usually can only apprehend that in retrospect. Most of the good choices you make are by happenstance. I think that’s particularly clear here in Mrs. Blessing’s life.
Q: The secrets of the past and their effect on the actions of people in the present is a prevalent theme in this novel. What compelled you to give this idea such prominence?
A: I think all families have secrets. Some of them are benign, even positive; for instance, I think a healthy family might be one in which each of the children believes he or she is Mom’s favorite. And parents and children always keep a part of themselves secret from one another because they don’t want to upset or disappoint. The secrets are different than they were in Mrs. Blessing’s day, when everyone pretended they didn’t exist, when nine-pound babies were pronounced premature because they’d been born seven months after a wedding and gay men had to live shadow existences with wives and children. But more secrets are born out of love than out of shame, even today. That’s why Sunny and Benny don’t tell Lydia what she eventually discovers: because they adore her and don’t want to rock her world. By the time it is rocked, she’s ready for it. I think total honesty is overvalued. Sometimes it’s more important to be kind than to be honest. I know that’s unfashionable, but so be it.
Q: Writers are often told, “write what you know.” Blessings is told from two perspectives, those of both a young man and an elderly woman, two points of view unlike your own. How did you find and develop their voices in your writing? How did you go about developing a structure for the novel that would convey these two focal characters and the ideas about time and memory in a literarily tangible way? What were the difficulties or advantages of writing a book that incorporates storylines in both the past and the present?
A: Mrs. Blessing offered me an extraordinary opportunity, one that I’ve never had before as a writer. In sum, it was all there. What I mean by that is that usually when you’re writing about someone they are at a specific moment when they’re coming of age, or starting a family, or building a work life. But with a woman of 80, which is what Lydia Blessing is in this novel, you have it all: the young woman, the young wife, the mother, the middle-aged matron, the old woman. All of them are coexisting, at least in her mind. And so it’s such a rich vein to mine for the writer, except that most of it is backstory. That’s how elderly people live; as Lydia says at one point, the past dances with the present in your mind. One thing reminds you of another. Structurally it’s helpful if you can simply let your narrative meander in the way our memories do, and that’s what I tried to do here. Skip, on the other hand, is only 24. He has very little backstory, so most of the real action of the book coalesces around him. And that was convenient from a narrative standpoint as well. I’m not sure it would have worked if either character had been the only protagonist. But alternating the two of them seemed to offer me two different ways of telling the same story.
Q: The descriptions of Skip’s love for Faith are remarkable. How much did you draw on your own experience as a mother in writing about Faith?
A: Part of my struggle with Faith was that babies make lousy characters. There’s only so many ways they can hit themselves in the face before the reader has had enough of it. (I’m trying to think of a good baby in a book. Most of them are symbols of sexual license: “The Scarlet Letter” and so forth. They’re not real characters.) And while I was lucky and had very easy babies myself, I didn’t want her to be too angelic: hence the early scene in which she cries all night and throws up all over the bedroom. But my pediatrician always used to say that she saw an unmistakable link between those parents who loved their work, and those babies who were relatively easy to work with. Of course, Skip loves his work. As did I. However, my children are all teenagers now and I found that I’d forgotten a good bit about raising infants, probably because I was so sleep-deprived at the time. I cheated a little, used websites and baby books to keep track of the age at which Faith would have smiled and rolled over and slept through the night. I just love infants. Everyone projects onto them. And of course projection is a useful way of limning character.
Q: You are well known for crafting wonderful female characters, true heroines. Blessings was a departure for you in that the focal point of the story is a man, whom, by traditional standards, might be considered a bit unsual, in that he has an astonishing “maternal instinct.” How did you conceive of Skip, and what was it like to write him?
A: There are a lot of men like Skip, who are most comfortable in a nurturing role but simply aren’t given the opportunity to fill one. In fact he’s roughly patterned on my son Christopher, to whom the book is dedicated, who has that same combination of sweetness and care, integrity and honesty. I’ve had a history of being pretty tough on guys in my novels, although I redeemed myself somewhat in “Black and Blue” with the male teacher with whom Fran Flynn becomes involved. But even in that book the central male figure was so horrific that the gender balance of the book was off. I wanted to work it in a different way here, with a somewhat harsh and unlikeable female character–two, actually, if you count Nadine–and a warm and nurturing male character. Actually, my favorite character in the book is a man, Sunny Blessing, who I just find irresistible even if he’s a kind of vivid ghost. And I like Benny a lot, too. I suppose at some level the male characters in this novel are a testimonial to the fact that both my boys are now men, and pretty terrific men at that.
Q: What books have affected you (on both personal and professional levels) over the course of your life? What are you reading now?
A: Oh, I hate “best” lists. The book I’m recommending to everyone right now is “The Lovely Bones,” a first novel by Alice Sebold that is simply wonderful. It’s the story of a 14-year-old girl murdered by a neighbor and it’s told from her perspective as she looks down from heaven and watches her family try to go on without her. I think it’s going to be a great classic, one of those books people read for years because it’s so moving and true. I’m also rereading “Dombey and Sons” because I reread one long Dickens novel every summer. I always learn something about the use of detail, the description of minor characters and the marriage of social conscience and lively storytelling. Don DeLillo is the Dickens of our age; I thought “Underworld” was the most successful ambitious novel I’ve read in years. But you can’t discount the miniaturists. “Pride and Prejudice,” which I reread last summer, is still the perfect novel about how infuriating it can be to be female. Alice McDermott’s “Charming Billy” was a small book with the whole world inside.
Q: When incorporating theme and social reflection into a novel, are you conscious that you are doing it? Do you have messages you want to convey to your reader, or do they emerge on their own terms? What do you want readers to take away from this story and from your writing in general?
I must say I hate talking about my novels once they’re done. To begin with, so much of what I do is intuitive that I find it very difficult to explain or describe. And then I always find that readers find things in the book that I hadn’t really seen but that are indubitably true. So I’m happiest when people explain my work to me, rather than the other way around.
1. Blessings is a title that holds a great deal of meaning for this book, as the name of the Blessings’ house, but also in the metaphysical sense of the word.. Before reading the book, what did the title Blessings suggest to you? Did it create any expectations or shape the way you reflected on the book as you read? When you finished the book, what meaning did you take away from the title Blessings?
2. The Washington Post has said of Anna Quindlen’s work, “Quindlen knows that all the things we ever will be can be found in some forgotten fragment of family.” Family seems to be connected to many of the fundamental and important themes of the novel. How might this tribute be applied to Blessings?
3. The formation and preservation of family, traditional or not, is one of the prominent, underlying themes of the novel, and Quindlen introduces us to several families throughout. Describe some of these families, their relationships, and the ways in which these families function as such. How are they similar? Different? What effect do these similarities or differences have on the characters and the story as a whole? Is one individual important in each group, if so, how?
4. How does Quindlen show the evolution of what is typically considered “family” over the course of the book? Do you think that Skip, Lydia, and Faith have formed a genuine family? If so, why, and if not, why not?
5. At the heart of Blessings is the issue of legitimacy. By traditional standards, both Meredith, Lydia’s own daughter, and Faith would be deemed “illegitimate” children. When Faith’s mother emerges, and seeks custody of her child, issues of the legitimacy of Faith’s life with Skip are raised. What makes a person legitmate, or illegitimate today, or for you? Who decides, or who should decide?
6. In a society and a world that is constantly changing, is there such a thing as a “normal” family? What makes the “family” of Blessings—Skip, Lydia, and Faith—either normal or unusual, and what allows them to function as a family unit?
7. Love as a natural process is a prevalent theme in Blessings, and Quindlen shows it to be both instinctual and learned. Where do we see love as a natural instinct, and where do we see it as a learned quality? How do these differences in abilities and capacities for love shed light on the various characters? What do these emotional variations ultimately say about the nature of love and loyalty?
8. All of the main characters, including Faith, have histories that haunt them. Lydia harbors the memory of her brother, and Skip finds himself constantly trying to escape an unwarranted but poor reputation. In Blessings, how does the past become an influential part of the present? At what points does memory affect characters’ actions in the present, or change the way in which a specific event is played out? Do either Lydia or Skip ever fully escape their pasts, or must they embrace them in order to lead fuller, more productive lives in the present?
9. The narrative structure of Blessings provides a literary framework that is important to the story and to our ability to connect with its characters. Describe the book’s narrative structure. What effect did it have on your experience as a reader? Did the time-present/time-past structure of Lydia’s story, interwoven with the day-to-day story of life at Blessings, allow her to be a more sympathetic character? How does the narrative structure of the novel parallel, tap into, and connect with some of the book’s themes?
10. The notion of individuality figures prominently into Blessings, and brings up questions about the individual’s place in the community, and the advantages and disadvantages of social conformity. Give some examples of scenes or situations from the book where the beliefs of an individual are challenged by the value system of a community. The situation which comes to the forefront of this issue is Skip’s ultimate decision to return Faith to her birth-mother, so she can be raised in a more traditional family. Do you agree with Skip’s decision? Were you satisfied with this conclusion? If not, how would you have liked to see it end?
11. Several characters discover a sense of redemption by the close of the novel. In what ways did you, as a reader, sense Skip and Lydia had been redeemed, and what were the causes of that process? The redemptive power of love is prevalent throughout. In what other characters do we see this change?
12. Quindlen uses dialogue as a tool not only to explain what a character is thinking or doing at the moment, but to provide insight into what moves and compels his or her actions and emotions. Through dialogue, Quindlen allows the reader to really get into the mind of a character. Discuss the nuances of the dialogue used throughout the book. How do speech patterns and thought patterns differ, and how do these differences influence your view and understanding of a given character?
13. Avid readers of Quindlen’s work may be familiar with her non-fiction writings and journalism. As a Quindlen fan, was there anything about Blessings that reminded you of Quindlen’s journalistic perspective—aspects such as astute observation of people, storytelling ability, etc.—that called to mind the skills of a good reporter?
FROM CHAPTER ONE
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 don’t 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.
The house had a squat and stolid quality, as though it had lain down to rest in the valley and grown middle-aged. Ill-advised additions had been made, according to the fashion of the times: a den paneled in rustic pine, a long screened porch, some dormers scattered above the horizontal roof line like eyes peering down the drive. The weeping willows at one end of the pond dipped low, but the cedars at the other were too tall and rangy for grace, and there had been sporadic talk of cutting them down almost from the day they were planted. The gardens were of the most conventional sort, hollyhocks in the back, day lilies in the center, alyssum along the borders. Wild rhododendrons grew in the shade wherever a stream sprang from the ground to spill down the hillside and into the big pond, a lake almost, that lay along one side of the house. None of it amounted to much on its own.
But taken altogether it was something almost perfect, the sort of place that, from the road, which was how these two had first seen it, promised plenty without pretense, ease without arrogance. From the road Blessings 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 around their shoulders, and go to bed content. At one time or another, in fact all of these things had been true, but not for some time.
In the fashion of the young, the two in the car, peering down the drive some months before, had convinced themselves that appearance was reality. For the girl, it was the awnings that had finally convinced her, faded green and gold stripes over each window, like proud flags of this little nation-state, where it had been arranged that the sun would never fade the upholstery. That, and a small boat to one side of the pond, in which it was not only possible but indubitable that children could sit safely, row handily, put out a fishing line. In the light from a thumbnail moon the boat, upended on the grass, shone as though a smaller moon had dropped down to earth. The girl saw the sign by the side of the drive in the car’s headlights as a benediction, not as a sign of ownership, the proud name of an old family at the end of its bloodline.
The pond made the car’s driver nervous. It was shiny bright as a mirror, every star, every constellation, even the path of planes, reflecting back within its dark water and seemingly magnified by the pitch black of the night and the stillness of its surface. Frogs called from its banks, and as the car rolled silently into the circular driveway turnaround a fish jumped and left circles on the surface of the water. At the same moment the car tripped the automatic light at the corner of the house’s long porch, and it lit up the drive and the water and the bats that flew crazy eights in search of mosquitoes. The light caught the car itself squarely, so that the two people in the front seat, a boy and girl, each poised between the raw uncertain beauty of adolescence and the duller settled contours of adulthood, were illuminated momentarily as though by the flash from a camera. Their light hair shone, enough alike that at first glance they could have passed for siblings.
“Oh, shit,” said the driver, stepping down hard on the brake, so that the car bucked.
“Don’t do that,” cried the girl. Her hand touched a cardboard box on the backseat, then her own forehead, then dropped to her lap. “I’d kill for a cigarette,” she murmured.
“Right,” whispered the boy harshly. “So you could have an asthma attack right here and wake everybody up.”
“That’s not why I’m not smoking,” the girl muttered.
“Let’s just get this over with,” he said.
The car glided to the corner of the big garage, with its five bays. There was a narrow door on one side of the oblong building, and three flagstone steps leading to it. The boy had oiled the doors of the car that morning, with a foresight and industry and stealth the girl had not expected of him. They had both surprised each other and themselves in the last two days, he with his hardness and his determination, she with her weakness and her grief. Anyone familiar with the love affairs between men and women could have told them that theirs would soon be over.
As he slid out and opened the back door there was almost no sound, only the sort of clicks and snaps that could have been a moth hitting a screen or a raccoon stepping on a stick in the woods that stretched behind the garage and into the black of the mountains and the night. The girl was huddled against the door on her side now, all folded in upon herself like an old woman, or like a child who’d fallen asleep on a long journey; she heard the sounds of him as though they were musical notes, each distinct and clear, and her shoulders moved slightly beneath her shirt, and her hands were jammed between her knees. She felt as though they were somehow alone in the world, almost as though the house and its surroundings were a kind of island, floating in a deep sea of ordinary life through which the two of them would have to swim back to shore by driving back up the drive.
She thought this feeling was because of the boy, and the box, and the night, and the ache in her slack belly and her bruised groin, and the pain in her chest that might have been the beginning of an asthma attack. But she was only the latest in a long line of people who had felt that Blessings was somehow a place apart. In the moonlight the high points of it, the faint luster of the slate roof of the house, the shed on the knoll where the gardener had always kept his tools, the small white boathouse at one end of the pond: all of them were set in high sepia relief like the photograph hung carelessly now on the short wall of the library, the one of Edwin Blessing, who bought the place when it was just another old farm and lavished money on it in the years when he had money to spend. The people from Mount Mason who worked there, washing up at the parties in the old days, fixing frozen pipes for the old lady in the years after the parties ended: they all said it was like going somewhere out of this world, the quiet, the clean smells, the rooms and rooms full of polished furniture and toile draperies, which they only glimpsed through half-open doorways. Above all the pond, the gardens, the land. The real world tried to intrude from time to time upon Blessings, but usually the real world failed.