First-time novelist’s family saga is ‘the perfect Watch Hill beach read’

First-time novelist’s family saga is ‘the perfect Watch Hill beach read’

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg begins her debut novel, “Eden,” with a quote written by the novelist Amos Oz about the powerful force of nature.

On the following page is a sketch of a tree — a family tree. A four-generation family tree leading with Bunny and Sadie (the matriarch) Meister in the early part of the 20th century, and ending with baby Rae and her mother, Sarah, in the beginning of the 21st.

The novel, which takes place in fictional “Long Harbor, Rhode Island,” has been described as “a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos,” by New York Times best-selling author Anita Shreve.

On a recent windy afternoon, Blasberg, a married mother of a daughter and two sons who divides her time between Watch Hill and Beacon Hill, sat inside the great room on the raised first floor of her own magnificent summer home on Osprey Point, and talked about the book, its characters, its setting, its genesis, and how she came to be a writer of fiction.

It was here, in this house, with its extraordinary views of Osbrook Point and Little Narragansett Bay, she said, that she wrote much of the sweeping, female-centric, family saga.

Later this summer, Blasberg and her husband, John, will host a benefit for the Literacy Volunteers of Washington County at the house, which was designed by Tom Kligerman, an architect, Weekapaug native, and partner in the nationally renowned firm, IKBA. The house conveys the sense of being on a boat.

The event is designed to show how creative people oftentimes “crave houses that match their spirit of adventure and quirkiness,” said Jennifer Coduri Ross, the executive director of the literacy organization.

“It’s an ideal setting for the event and we are so grateful to the Blasbergs for their generosity,” said Ross, noting that Blasberg will also sell and sign copies of her book at the event, which is scheduled for Aug. 17.

“We’re so excited about this,” added Robin E. Springborn of Westerly, a member of the literacy organization’s board of trustees. “How generous of Jeanne to offer her house ... and the architect will be there as well.”

Blasberg has a busy summer ahead. In addition to the Aug. 17 benefit, she has book talks and signings up and down the East Coast, including a June 27 talk at Avondale Arts, a July 17 talk and signing at the Westerly Public Library, and stops at a number of book festivals.

And then there’s an initiative near and dear to her heart, The Westerly Memoir Project. The project, now in its second year, will begin again on July 11, and is accepting applications from people interested in learning how to turn their memories into short stories.

Blasberg is encouraging people to sign up and participate in the project, which is modeled after a program Blasberg attended at Grub Street, a Boston-based creative writing center that inspired her to write “Eden.”

A Smith graduate who majored in American Studies and began her career as a corporate finance analyst at Federated Stores in Cincinnati, Blasberg is a fit and trim national squash champion who served as the first female board chair for U.S. Squash.

Blasberg has kept a journal since childhood, and has written case studies and business articles for Harvard Business School. When she and John moved to Boston, she enrolled at Grub Street. It was then that she turned her attention first to memoir and later to fiction.

“Eden,” said Blasberg, which is set in a fictional version of Watch Hill, tells the story of Becca Meister Fitzpatrick, “wife, mother, grandmother, and pillar of the community” and “dutiful steward of her family’s iconic summer tradition” who, inspired by her granddaughter’s boldness, “summons the courage to reveal a long-buried secret” in the “small town, rife with gossip and a set of rules all its own.”

“I first came to Watch Hill 20 years ago,” said Blasberg, “and I’ve been fascinated with the culture here ever since.”

She was also fascinated by the stories of the people who built her father’s summer house and on the impact of the Hurricane of 1938 on the Westerly area.

Blasberg, who said it “took a good eight years,” to write the novel, spent a fair amount of time researching while writing, and has filled its pages with a combination of history and fiction.

Deborah Royce, a Watch Hill neighbor who read the book soon after it was released, calls “Eden” the ideal summertime book. “Jeannie has brought to life an absorbing tale of family, money, multi-generational squabbles and secrets and surprises,” Royce said. “In other words, the perfect Watch Hill beach read ... I loved ‘Eden’ and will gleefully read it again this summer.”

Jacka Jean Haggerty of Westerly connected with Blasberg the moment the two women met 20 years ago. Ever since, said Haggerty, the two have been “soul sisters.” Together, she said, the two friends have “raised our children, celebrated their accomplishments and shared the sadness of the loss of our mothers.”

Haggerty said she has always been impressed by Blasberg’s dedication to her work and encouraged by her willingness to help others.

“She’s disciplined, she’s dedicated, she’s an inspiration and she’s a giver,” said Haggerty.

“She had this dream of writing a novel and she worked hard to make it happen,” Haggerty added. “She did not give up.”

Recently Haggerty attended a bookstore event with Blasberg and listened as her friend read from “Eden,” then shared personal stories and writing tips.

“A lot of her life is in ‘Eden,’” she said, “it’s a book that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.”


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