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December 3, 2010

Sandra Rodriguez Barron: STAY WITH ME

Posted by Dana

In today's guest post, author Sandra Rodriguez Barron, shares the deeply personal loss that led to her new novel, STAY WITH ME. It's always interesting to learn what drives an author to a story and I always find myself even more compelled to read the book when I know the back story.

Love in the Time of Brain Cancer

StayWithMe pb c.JPGShortly after my first novel was published, both my father and my longtime friend—my best “guy friend” you could say—were diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. My dad went quickly. My mother went from wife, to caretaker, to widow in a matter of weeks. My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t married, and although he had a wonderful family and an abundance of close friends, he died without a wife or girlfriend by his side. This detail haunted me because he had worked very hard to reach the zenith of his career and had been looking forward to the nest-building stage in his life. When we were in our twenties, we joked about being each other’s “Plan B.” Should the ripe old age of thirty find us both alone, we decided, we would simply marry each other. When that milestone arrived, we found ourselves both dating people we loved but who weren’t exactly a perfect fit. By then we had moved to different states. We debated our oddly similar situations over the phone, doing our best to offer each other support and useful advice. In the end, we both forfeited those flawed relationships, albeit with a great deal of pain and uncertainty. As good friends do, we applauded each other’s strength and traded assurances that we would both find the real thing eventually. One of us was right, anyway. Although he appears in my wedding photos, sadly, I will never appear in his. He died at age 42.

That moment that you are forced to examine what you really believe about love is the departure point of my second novel, Stay with Me. David O’Farrell and Julia Griswold are thirtysomethings struggling to fix the cracks in their six-year long relationship. Given an ultimatum about marriage, David still can’t commit to a life with Julia. A deeply wounded Julia ends the relationship and does her best to move on. A month later, David is diagnosed with brain cancer. Realizing that Julia is exactly the kind of woman he needs by his side, he begs her to return to him. But he has already set Julia’s freedom in motion. Moreover, she’s thirty-four and anxious to find her ideal mate, get married and have kids. It doesn’t make any sense for her to turn back. But what if David believes that his very survival depends on their reconciliation? What if he just can’t let her go? And if she still loves him, wouldn’t she, then, become the one frozen with indecision?

Every relationship happens in a greater context, and the context that I find most interesting and complex is family. One of the reasons Julia and David were initially attracted to one another is because their family structures are polar opposites. David O’Farrell was a foundling. He was abandoned, along with four other toddlers, on a boat found docked in Puerto Rico. He and his siblings know nothing about their biological origins. Julia on the other hand, comes from a huge, historic family. The Griswolds spend their summers in an island house stuffed with things their ancestors once touched, like toupees and toys and wrist watches and military medals and chipped wedding china. Julia’s family is all about deep roots, while David’s past is troubled and mysterious.

If Julia is David’s anchor, Adrian Vega, his brother, is his rock. Adrian is a confident, up-and-coming Miami musician, whom David describes as “talented with the guitar as he is with the chicas.” But while Adrian is a classic Don Juan in the netherworld of the South Beach club scene, he’s also a devoted brother. Adrian and Julia soon become partners in David’s survival, developing, in the meantime, a deep bond that can’t seem to stop expanding into something far more complex. When Julia and all five siblings gather for a ten-day reunion at the Griswolds’ island home, the siblings will discover, over lovingly prepared dinners and dock-side cocktails, that while blood bonds are invaluable, they’re not the only way that people can belong to each other. Julia and Adrian will arrive at that abrupt split in the road that forces the kind of life-changing decisions that will either affirm or irrevocably alter the way they see themselves and each other. And when the five siblings learn where they came from and how they ended up on that boat thirty years earlier, some windows will burst open, while others will slam shut in anticipation of the terrible storm that is indeed headed their way.

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. I have been endlessly comforted in learning that that just because someone is gone, it doesn’t meant that your relationship with them has to end. Our time together can echo and echo and echo beyond a lifespan, even if one of those lives is far too short.

-- Sandra Rodriguez Barron, author of Stay With Me (