In 1979, five toddlers ranging in age from two to four years, were abandoned aboard a luxury yacht named “For Tuna” on the coast of Puerto Rico. The vessel had reportedly been lost during Hurricane David. Healthy and apparently cared for, even though one bore the scars of earlier abuse, they wore elegant designer clothing but, curiously, no shoes. Even more intriguing was the starfish drawing each bore upon one hand.
A media frenzy ensued, with reporters speculating about the children’s national origin (some insisting that, due to their attire, they must be Cuban), the whereabouts of their parents, whether or not they were all, in fact, siblings. Because they were discovered in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government took custody of the children, and placed them in foster homes and orphanages. In order to protect the children’s privacy, no further information was released to the media.
The children grew up in different households, but remained close. Eventually, four of them got starfish tattoos on their hands, a sign of their connection with and love for each other. They gathered together for weddings and other events, but, inevitably, due to their busy schedules, it was difficult for all five of them to ever be in the same room at the same time. As adults, each in his/her own way deals with the lingering questions about the details of their lives before that fateful night when they were discovered.
David has been living with Julia for six years. She is anxious for David to make a commitment to her so that they can start a family. But David is not ready to settle down and, after he fails to propose on Julia’s 34th birthday, and turns down her proposal the next day, she leaves him.
David has been experiencing headaches, nausea, and mysterious flashes of random memories or, perhaps, hallucinations. He knows that he should consult his physician, but procrastinates until he suffers a seizure while at work and is rushed to the hospital. There, his worst fears are confirmed: An MRI reveals a glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and aggressive type of primary brain tumor which doctors refer to as “the terminator,” because surgery, chemotherapy and radiation may slow the tumor’s growth, but the condition is always fatal within a couple of years of diagnosis. The number of patients who live ten years past diagnosis are so statistically insignificant it is as though they don’t even exist.
When she learns about his diagnosis and impending surgery, Julia returns to David’s side, but solely as his friend. As he recuperates from surgery and undergoes treatment, Julia arranges for her family’s summer home on Griswold Island off the coast of Connecticut to be the site of a reunion of the five starfish children. David is determined that once all of them come together, they must open Pandora’s box in an effort to find out who they really are, how they came to be abandoned together, and whether or not they are actually related to each other by blood.
Sandra Rodriguez Barron’s second novel, Stay With Me, begins with a most unusual premise. The 1979 Prologue to the story details the voyage of the five toddlers from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, and their discovery as a mysterious woman looks on from a hidden perch above.
The action then picks up in August 2007, with David and Julia ensconced at her family’s summer house. The structure is more than 100 years old and full of antiques, portraits of her ancestors, and bound leather volumes in which the family’s history has been meticulously chronicled since the late 1700’s. Julia’s New England Yankee heritage could not stand in starker contrast to David’s mysterious journey to America, where he was adopted by Paul and Marcia O’Farrell, and raised in a loving, nurturing environment.
Not all of the children fared as well as David. Ray, in particular, struggles with emotional problems, alcoholism, and survived a suicide attempt. He works as a cook and is the most immature of the siblings. He is also extremely lonely. Taina found professional success as a textile designer, but her marriage to Doug has unraveled, in large part because of her unrelenting insomnia. Doug confesses to David that he still loves Taina, but cannot tolerate her insistence upon sleeping in the bunker she has designed for herself, a sort of sensory deprivation chamber where she isolates herself from noises and lights that threaten her ability to sleep . . . as well as any chance for intimacy with her husband. Holly has married a pilot, Erick, and mothers three young boys in their Florida home. She desperately wants a little girl who will have her brown eyes and hair, since all three red-haired, freckled little boys look just like their father. But Erick is resolute in his determination to father only three children.
Lastly, Adrian, with whom David shares the tightest bond, has found success as a singer/songwriter. A Latin heartthrob, he is, like David, determined to remain a bachelor, although unlike David, he does not stay with any one woman more than six months before becoming bored and moving on.
That moment that you are forced to examine what you really believe about love is the departure point of Stay with Me. . . . In the course of writing Stay With Me, my characters and I simultaneously discovered that we are most alive when we are standing at that fork in the road, revealing ourselves by our choices, surrendering the right to turn back with every step.~ Author Sandra Rodriguez Barron
Taina’s estranged husband, a New York City detective, has offered to investigate, beginning with DNA testing to determine if the five are indeed siblings, given that, for the most part, they do not look anything alike. Some, like David, are eager to know the truth. Others, especially Adrian, feel that they are joined together for life by their circumstances, symbolized by their tattoos, and prefer not to know whether the ties that bind them are based in genetics or fate. Adrian fears that learning there is no biological connection will cause them to drift apart and not be there for each other in the future.
Barron expertly crafts a thoughtful, deliberative study of what it means to be a family through her creation of six — Julia is one of the stars of the tale, her own story intricately interwoven with that of the starfish children — unique and intriguing characters, each of whom is flawed in his/her own way. David, Adrian, and Taina share an inability to fully commit to another person, while Ray leads a solitary life. Holly is a nurturer, determined to continue having children until she at last gived birth to one who is her duplicate. As the six spend a week on the island, sharing memories, their fears and apprehension about David’s future, and growing attachments and alliances, it gradually becomes clear that each has forged his/her own definition of “family” and what it means to belong to a familial unit — with varying degrees of success and adaptability.
And each has learned to question his/her origins at varying depth levels. For Adrian, who bears the scars of cigarette burns on his torso, the subject was closed long ago. He has no desire to meet the parent(s) or other person(s) who abused him. Taina long ago devised a scenario about her birth mother with which she is, at least on the surface, satisfied. Facing his own mortality, David is the most curious, and has the blessing of his adoptive parents to pursue the answers for which he longs, especially given that his condition has caused him to experience detailed flashbacks, including some early memories of being in a crib with his brother, Adrian, and whisked into the loving arms of a woman who called him “Javier” and assured him that everything he was experiencing would one day be worth the struggle.
For Julia, whose family history literally surrounds all of them as they spend the week drinking, swimming, sailing, and cooking, it is a time to at last let go of David and move on with her life, even though she still loves the man she once wanted to marry. She finds herself drawn to another, but loyalty to David will not allow her to cross certain boundaries, no matter what her heart desires. The question is when and how she will extricate herself from the role she willingly took on as David’s caregiver, so that his siblings can take over responsibility for him in his final days. But will her long-standing emotional attachment to David prevent her from resolving her conflicted feelings of loss, disappointment, connection, duty, and, most importantly, love, so that her future can begin to take shape? Interestingly, in early drafts of the book, Julia and David were married. However, Barron soon discovered that “there wasn’t any kind of dilemma” and she wanted very much “give the reader the opportunity to ask themselves that question: what part of you is stronger? The side of you that just says run, I want my life back; I’m turning into a new direction; the decision is made, and I’m not looking back? Or do you change your direction and just say, I’m just going to stay with you as long as you need me to?”
Barron’s prose is descriptive, rich, and engrossing. Born in Puerto Rico, she has also lived in Connecticut and Miami, so her familiarity with the book’s settings lends authority to her writing. She was inspired to write the story after losing two loved ones, her father and a close friend, to cancer. Without a hint of preachiness, she deftly explores the questions noted above, as well as how those inquiries are informed and shaped by one’s spirituality. For instance, David’s parents, Roman Catholics, worry about the fact that, thus far, he has refused to acknowledge the existence of God. His adopted mother, Marcia, ponders what will happen to the soul that David has never claimed ownership of.
Stay With Me is Barron’s individualized twist on a question authors have always and likely will always ask: What constitutes a family? Many folks complain about their family members, noting the unfairness of being allowed to choose their friends, but not their relatives. Barron challenges her readers to ponder how they might respond if actually granted the ability to make that choice. What criteria would govern? What ties would bind? And, ultimately, would it matter if those ties were merely as a result of happenstance (fate)? If you were to learn that your siblings, with whom you share a close bond, were not really related to you in any way, would you still consider them your brothers and sisters? Barron revealed in a recent interview that she has “witnessed people whose connection to each other is more profound than people who have genetic blood relations. Ultimately, I think what I concluded was that you can choose your family. . . . That’s what these children did in the story.”
I heard someone once say that the job of fiction is to ask questions, not to provide answers. Readers should ask themselves questions.~ Author Sandra Rodriguez Barron
Readers who cannot tolerate a mystery that remains unresolved by the book’s conclusion will be happy to know that the starfish children’s origins are explained fully, in beautiful detail. How that information impacts their futures and relationships with each other is also exquisitely detailed by Barron in a way that leaves her readers satisfied, if not quite convinced that everyone will ride off into the sunset to a happily-ever-after existence. After all, the answers to the questions the characters ask about their early lives are mere data. Just bits of information. The true value of the answers they receive lies in how, as adults, they actually utilize the information in their daily lives and relationships with those they love. By the end of the book, it is clear that they have each been changed by what they have learned, as well as by the journey to those discoveries. The same can be said for Barron’s readers. I heartily recommend Stay With Me to any reader who finds stories about the complexities and mysteries of familial relationships as fascinating as I do.