Quindlen's 'Blessings' -- finding faith

September 15, 2002|By Fran Wood | By Fran Wood,Special to the Sun

Blessings, by Anna Quindlen. Random House, 224 pages, $24.95.

Had Anna Quindlen been inclined to subtitle her new novel, "The Odd Couple" would have been an apt choice -- couples don't come much odder than a wealthy octogenarian widow and her young ex-convict estate manager whose hearts are captured and healed by an abandoned infant.

Then again, Quindlen could have subtitled it "Men Behaving Badly" -- because although male protagonist Skip is a wonderful guy, Blessings also details how a woman's life can be decimated by the men she cares about.

Lydia Blessings Carton's life has been defined by her beloved father, her adored brother, the lover who took advantage of her naivete and the seeming white knight who married her when pregnancy threatened to throw her family into disgrace. She trusted each. Each abused that trust.

To explain those tragedies, which often unfolded in ways Lydia herself did not understand, Quindlen skillfully incorporates both the peculiar traits of the very wealthy, such as Lydia's cold, mirthless mother, and the unfulfilled yearnings of the very poor, such as Lydia's unhappy maid Nadine and Skip's childhood friend Chris, who was responsible for his undeserved incarceration.

Blessings begins with Skip, determined to build a better life though unsure exactly how, finding the abandoned baby girl on the stairs leading to his garage apartment on Lydia's estate.

After a rush of apprehension, he is drawn to the child and takes her in, determined to find redemption by giving her the love and nurturing he was denied. He names her Faith.

Quindlen's descriptions of Skip's first days with the infant are heartrending -- bedding the baby in a dresser drawer; running to the local Wal-Mart to buy diapers, bottles, formula; trying to tend the 200-acre estate after walking the baby all night.

Then Lydia makes a rare visit to his apartment, to tell him the power is out, and discovers his secret.

To Skip's surprise, she not only doesn't fire him, she joins his improbable mission. Somehow little Faith brings out the best in Lydia, too. She finds a doctor to administer shots and has a lawyer working on a birth certificate.

This is not, however, a simple-and-tidy fairy tale. Pulitzer Prize-winner Quindlen is highly skilled at unwrapping her story, like her characters, a little at a time. Complications arise and as they do, we also learn more about the other stories, particularly Lydia's.

She lives at Blessings, the country estate her father established with her mother's money to fulfill his aspirations as a gentleman farmer. By all appearances Lydia's has been a charmed life, back to idyllic youthful summers with her beloved brother Sunny.

But after the death of Benny, the man who married her, Blessings became the prison to which she was banished by her mother, and where she remained through an increasingly isolated and lonely life.

Cranky, parsimonious and humorless, the Lydia we meet is playing out the string. She is as distant from her daughter Meredith as she was from her own mother. Her life is comfortable and hollow.

But perhaps, just perhaps, suggests Quindlen in this gracefully told tale, it is never too late to find faith -- often in the least likely places.

Fran Wood, a former deputy managing editor of the New York Daily News, is a columnist, editorial writer and book reviewer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

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