WESTERLY — When she was studying the Old Testament story of Hannah and Samuel in her midrash class several years ago, Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg was struck by the fact that Hannah's experience — of a mother giving up her much-longed-for son— is not really described or discussed in the Bible.
"Nothing in the Bible ever speaks to how she was feeling," said Blasberg one afternoon last week as sat in the wide-windowed living room of her Watch Hill summer home with the family dog, Brady, a coffee-colored Australian Labradoodle, by her feet, and expansive views of Little Narragansett Bay in the distance.
"Here's a woman who couldn't have children, so she goes to the priest who sort of rebukes her," explained Blasberg, her bright baby-blue eyes piercing and intense. "So, Hannah then prays and prays, and vows that if she ever does get pregnant, she'll turn her child over to the temple. Then she gets pregnant, has a son and she does hand him over ... to God, to the temple, to the same priest. Hannah hands over her child to a man in a revered institution and she trusts him," she said.
"It was about that same time my kids were leaving home," continued Blasberg, the mother of Jack, 25, Charlie, 23, and Annie, 22, as she leaned down to pat Brady, who is named for a certain New England Patriots' quarterback. "Motherhood is really hard and it's so short ... and then they're gone."
Blasberg, a writer who divides her time between Boston and Westerly, has woven those themes — of the Biblical Hannah and Samuel, of motherhood, of children leaving home and of entrusting children to others, into a novel called "The Nine," with main characters named Hannah and Samuel. She dedicates her book to her three children, all of whom were early readers of the book, as was her husband, John.
In the book, the mother, Hannah Webber, who is Jewish, makes the decision for her 14-year-old son, Sam, to attend Dunning Academy, a prestigious Waspy prep school she's convinced will help her only child find success. Hannah's husband, Edward, is less enthusiastic. Hannah puts blind faith in the school's headmaster, trusting that he will mold her son into the brand of Dunning graduate she’s read about: senators, Supreme Court justices and business tycoons. Within the first pages of "The Nine," the reader knows Hannah has set up her family for a big fall.
Blasberg's husband — and their children — attended well-known New England boarding schools, and all served as inspirations, she said.
"There are a lot of ways you can describe this book," said Blasberg, who is preparing for the official launch of the "The Nine," her second work of fiction, this Wednesday, at a talk that is part of the Summer Author Series at the Ocean House. "It's a suspenseful thriller; it's a novel of our times ... given the sex scandals that keep coming up ... and it's a biblical allegory about the mother-son relationship."
"I think there is something about literature and archetypal stories," said Blasberg whose first novel, "Eden," was published in 2017. "It's almost inside our DNA."
Blasberg, an only child, attended a large public high school in Southern California before heading to Smith College, where she eventually met her husband, who was a student at Amherst. About 15 years ago, Blasberg, who was raised as a Christian, began the process of converting to Judaism in order to join the rest of her family.
"My children all went to Hebrew School, and I was very diligent about making sure they did," she said. "But I felt something was lacking so I began to attend adult Sunday school."
"It has brought us closer together as a family," she said of her conversion. "I love the rituals, the fact that the religion is centered around the home and that there's no real hierarchy."
"The Nine" is also about faith, Blasberg said. "Faith and letting go ... about the dangers of putting faith — especially blind faith — in institutions and traditions."
"How do you let go?" she asked. "How do you let go of a son? How do you let go of a daughter ... of anyone? Do you ever? And, how do we have faith in the institutions we hand our children over to?"
"Lately I've been dwelling on the idea that we've kind of let our kids down," added the writer, who hopes her book will become a "catalyst for conversation."
"We've pushed this idea of perfection and just added to their anxieties," she said.
Blasberg is the founder of the Westerly Memoir Project, a board member of the Boston Book Festival, and a student and board member of Grub Street, a creative writing center in Boston. "The Nine," she said, is in a full-blown, multimedia, social media swing.
"As an indie author I have to," said Blasberg, who has included a compelling, artistically-produced trailer for the book on her website, jeanneblasberg.com . She also writes a blog and has a strong Facebook and Instagram presence.
Blasberg said she feels fortunate to be living part-time in Westerly, where she sees "a kind of renaissance of the arts" taking place.
"It's incredibly special and very exciting, as a writer, to live in a place with so much writing" going on, said Blasberg, who is already at work on novel number three. "And to imagine all the other people who could produce in such a setting."