One look at the book cover. That’s all it took. Just one. I knew I had to read it. I simply could not resist author Allie Larkin’s beloved Argo, who poses in the cover photo as the fictional Joe, one of the book’s main characters.
It isn’t necessary that you be a dog-lover in order to enjoy Stay, although the fact that I have two canine children — Sophie and Buddy — certainly influenced my enjoyment of the story. I offer that disclaimer with no apologies. But the book is so authentic, believable, and endearing that even readers lacking an affinity for big, sad eyes, cold noses, wagging tails, and warm-blooded, furry creatures who insist on sleeping curled up right next to you might find themselves transformed, looking to adopt a dog and expand their families even before reaching the last page.
Welcome to Pump Up Your Book’s Virtual Book Tour for Stay
Savannah Leone grew up in tony Westchester, New York, the only daughter of Natalie. Van, as she is known to her friends and family, never knew her father and, even though she lived on the grounds of the Driscoll family’s estate, she resided in the carriage house with her mother, who was employed as the Driscoll’s housekeeper.
Van and the Driscoll’s daughter, Janie, grew up as the best of friends. And even though Natalie worked for the Driscolls, she and Diane Driscoll were also best friends.
When Van went away to college in Rochester, she soon met and fell in love with Peter. If Peter was aware of her feelings, he never let on, but the two of them developed a deep friendship. While Van waited patiently for Peter to return her feelings, Janie came for a weekend visit and . . . Van watched helplessly as Peter fell for Janie.
Van’s relationship with Diane has been strained since Diane participated in keeping the severity of Natalie’s illness from her. Rather than tell Van that Natalie’s condition was terminal, the two women conspired to keep Natalie’s secret so that Van would not feel compelled to leave school and care for her during her final days. Understandably, Van feels that Diane helped cheat her out of precious time that she could have spent with Natalie.
As the story begins, Van — wearing a hideous orange satin bridesmaid’s gown — watches the man she loves marry her best friend. Once she gets back home to her condominium, where she lives and works as a freelance grant writer, Van is extremely depressed, so she pours herself a drink: Grape kool-aid and vodka. And another drink, and another drink, and . . . she becomes fascinated by a late-night Rin Tin Tin marathon and decides that the cute little puppy advertised on the internet might assuage her loneliness. A few days later, she finds herself at the airport picking up a very large black German Shepherd from Slovakia for whom she has charged $6,000 on her credit card.
Ah, first love, unrequited love. Nothing compares to the exquisite pain it inflicts or the memories it evokes as the years pass. Stay is Allie Larkin’s debut novel, but she describes Van’s relationship with Peter, and her longing for him, with a level of sophistication and understanding usually exhibited by more seasoned writers.
After watching Janie claim as her husband the only man Van has ever loved, Van finds herself completely alone in the world. She acutely misses her mother, who was her unwavering source of unconditional love and support. Rather than allow the scene to become maudlin and the reader as morose as Van, Larkin turns Van’s circumstances into a hilarious escapade, culminating with her trip to the airport to claim her new pet. There, she discovers that the furry little puppy she thought she ordered is actually a one hundred pound drooling, eager-to-please, furry ball of unrestrained energy — with a very loud bark. And the crate in which he arrived from Slovakia won’t fit into her car, so he happily takes over the entire backseat.
As a child, Van’s request to have a dog was refused by Diane, so she has no experience as a pet owner. First, the dog needs a name, so she decides on Joe. He also needs food, a place to sleep, exercise, and toys, so Van goes shopping. She discovers that he is trained and responds to the commands listed on the paperwork that arrived with him. Most important of all, she learns that he is an inexhaustible repository of the very thing she wants most: Unconditional, unrestrained love.
Of course, she is not accustomed to the spurts of energy that are common to a young dog cooped up in a one-bedroom condominium, so when Joe begins running around, she decides to consult a veterinarian, Alex Brandt. Alex is, of course, handsome, caring, and very unlike Peter. He finds Van’s predicament not only amusing, but also beguiling. Alex is cautious and restrained, however, having already been married and divorced. He is as damaged and vulnerable as Van, and not ready to risk his heart again.
Van’s transformation from a girl pining for her college crush — who seemed so perfect for so many years, but whose shortcomings are all-too obvious now — to a young woman ready to leave the past behind and embark upon a more mature, healthy relationship is sensitively but humorously crafted by Larkin. With Stay, Larkin deftly escorts her readers on an emotional journey — one minute you will be laughing at Van’s antics, the next crying as you empathize with her feelings of despair and loss. Sure, the ending to the story appears certain long before the book’s end, but getting to that point is such a delightful experience that the reader won’t mind.
Women of all ages can glimpse aspects of themselves in Van, now or years ago. Every woman vividly remembers the first time that a big crush did not reciprocate and recalls the path that eventually led her to a happier, more fulfilling relationship — wiser and more judiciously protective of her heart. That natural progression from eager romantic to sensible lover is made more difficult for Van because she still mourns her mother, and has no real friendships other than those she has known with Peter and Janie. But she obviously cannot discuss her distress with either of the newlyweds. Her plight makes her a sympathetic heroine, easy to cheer on.
“Argo has taught me so much in the past five years, and I am who I am now, in large part because of him. I think Stay is, among other things, a tribute to the importance of pets and having that kind of unconditional love waiting for us at home. So it’s fitting that the cover is . . . a secret little tribute my trusty dog, Argo.”
~ Allie Larkin
Thus, Van is at a point in her life where she is ready to accept what Joe innately offers her: Consistent, unquestioning affection and loyalty. Larkin allows Van to quickly become attached to and dependent upon Joe, but then cleverly shifts the balance in their alliance as Van’s other relationships, especially her developing attraction to Alex, evolve. Before Van can move forward she must resolve the past, and that process threatens to derail her chance to find authentic happiness. Fortunately, however, Joe has already served as a reminder to Van of what is most important. By the time she confronts each of the people who have figured so prominently in her life up to that point — Peter, Janie, and, eventually, Diane — Van has already glimpsed the possibilities the future holds for her and Joe, and is motivated to release old regrets and forgive. Larkin’s handling of each of Van’s successive showdowns is equally satisfying. Each confrontation is carefully drafted by Larkin to demonstrate Van’s incremental growth into a strong, independent woman.
Ultimately, Stay is a story about much more than a lonely young woman who learns about the joys of pet ownership. It is a touching tale about the place Joe grabs in Van’s heart and how important he quickly becomes to her because of his utter acceptance, loyalty, and fierce devotion to Van no matter what. Because Van learns to once again accept the kind of love and affection Joe brings to her life, she also experiences the kind of emotional healing that is required in order for her to appreciate and nurture a more stable, grounded relationship with Alex. A relationship that, by the book’s end, looks like it has a good chance of thriving for a long time to come.
Larkin’s first novel will leave you with a large smile on your face as you close the cover and place it on your bookshelf, as well as a desire to read more of her work. Modern Dog (Fall 2010) aptly summed up why Stay is such an engrossing read. It truly is a “charming tale of love, loss, discovery, and healing.”
I read Stay in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review Challenge.