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All in the Family

BLESSINGS, A Novel, By Anna Quindlen, Random House: 230 pp., $24.95

September 22, 2002|MICHAEL HARRIS | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

A teenager drives his girlfriend one night to a rich widow's estate outside a small New England town. They leave a box containing a newborn baby, which is found the next morning by the young caretaker, Skip Cuddy. Skip, who has served time in jail and was abandoned by his own father, isn't inclined to turn the infant girl over to what he considers a callous foster-care system. He names her Faith and tries to raise her himself, in secret.

The estate is called Blessings, and it doesn't take any special alertness to suspect that Anna Quindlen's fourth novel (after "Object Lessons," "One True Thing" and "Black and Blue") is going to deliver a heartwarming story. Which it does. What surprises us is that good things happen not just to Skip and the baby but to the widow, Lydia Blessing, who has lived on the estate for 50 years and is mummified by the routine she has imposed to keep time and change at bay.

Lydia's father pretended to be rich when the money was really his wife's. Her mother was Jewish and hid this fact by posing as the crustiest of Episcopalians. Her beloved brother, Sunny, committed suicide. The father of Lydia's only child was an older, married man; to avoid scandal after becoming pregnant, she married a family friend she didn't love. Her husband was killed in World War II. Exiled to Blessings by her mother, who knew her secret, Lydia made the place a permanent refuge.

Like Lydia's life, Blessings is deceptive. With its big white house, its trout-filled pond, its woods and gardens and orchards, it's "almost perfect, the sort of place that ... promised plenty without pretense, ease without arrogance." But it's kept that way by the labor of generations of workers from town, such as Skip. Lydia is both despotic and helpless: She's constantly critical of the morning coffee others make for her, but she doesn't know how to grind the beans herself.

Skip, who lives in a little apartment over the Blessings garage, buys diapers and formula and child-care books. He works outdoors hunched over, the baby riding in a sling on his chest. Inevitably, though, Lydia finds out about Faith--and then accepts her presence and his surrogate fatherhood, which nothing we have seen of the old woman so far has suggested she'd do.

Quindlen's method is to tell the contemporary story, the story of Skip and the baby, a bit at a time--spacing it among long descriptions of the estate and of Lydia's memories, which seem as vivid as what's happening to her now but arrive out of sequence. This makes for a slow read until the sequence is apparent--until we understand how Lydia got to be the way she is and why, at 80, she might be willing and able to change.

"It's very difficult to believe that someone would just abandon an infant in the middle of nowhere like that," Lydia tells Skip sternly, even as she recalls her mother's voice a half-century ago advising her that Blessings "is the ideal place for you to have the baby."

Jennifer Foster, the daughter of Lydia's Korean housekeeper, is sympathetic too. She, Skip and Lydia form a baby-admiring and picnicking society, a summer-long conspiracy against the world, as "set apart" as the estate has always been. But New England summers are short, and we know the idyll can't last. The question is what poses the greatest threat: the law and the biological mother? The housekeeper, a greater despot, in her own way, than Lydia? Or the lowlife friends who led Skip astray before he came to Blessings?

John Cheever, in his Wapshot novels, covered some of the same geographical and psychological territory with humor, luminous prose and a hint of real tragedy. Quindlen, by contrast, is earnest, detailed and comforting. She considers a question that haunts Skip and Lydia--are we trapped forever in the cages of our upbringing and class?--before she delivers, with the aid of a dead man's bloodstained suit and an attic full of treasure, on the promise of her title, however mixed those blessings may be.

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