Stay with Me: Barron novel explores the mystery of family

Karen Campbell reviews Sandra Rodríguez Barron’s new novel, Stay with Me (Harper) for the Boston Globe.

In 1979, nine days after a devastating hurricane in the Caribbean, five toddlers were found in a luxury boat named the For Tuna docked at a pier on Puerto Rico’s western shore. The toddlers were alone, healthy, and beautifully dressed, though curiously, all were barefoot and had a starfish symbol sketched in green marker on the backs of their tiny hands.

Ranging in age from 2 to 4, none of the children resembled each other, with differing eye colors and skin tones ranging from pale to dark. They had limited vocabulary, though Spanish was clearly their native language, and none could offer any information as to where they were from or what their parents’ names were.

After a massive campaign to locate the children’s family turned up no clues, the children’s provenance was written off as an unsolvable mystery, and they were separated and raised by different families. But throughout the years, David, Taina, Holly, Raymond, and Adrian still consider themselves siblings, their connection reflected as adults in matching starfish tattoos.

This provocative construct for Sandra Rodriguez Barron’s new novel, “Stay With Me,’’ sets up an engaging examination of family ties and identity, laced with suspense, intrigue, and romance. The main story begins 35 years after the children were found, when David is diagnosed with brain cancer and told that he has a limited time to live. As his disease begins impacting brain function, David starts having brief flashbacks and disjointed memories from his early childhood. In confronting his own mortality, he becomes determined to figure out what exactly happened all those years ago.

Though David has long suspected he and his siblings are not related genetically, the five have never dug deeply into their background, preferring to keep alive the possibility of genetic connection. However, David believes, “The bonds formed from love and shared experiences are so much more powerful than shared genes. After all, we all know the world is full of blood relatives who can’t stand each other. I firmly believe that we are bound first and foremost by a deep understanding of each other. It’s all going to melt into one great alloy, then fuse into a whole that’s stronger than its divisive parts.’’

David devises a plan to get all his siblings together for a long-overdue family reunion, aided in his quest by his disenfranchised girlfriend Julia, who hasn’t the heart to break up with him in his condition. Julia’s family loans David and his siblings their beloved island home off the coast of Connecticut for a 10-day vacation, and Julia goes along as caretaker of both the house and David. What begins as revelry and celebration slowly starts to expose old wounds, forbidden attractions, jealousy. But amidst the shifting dynamics, the truth about the siblings’ mysterious childhood starts to come to light and deeper personal insights emerge.

Barron beautifully paces this compelling novel, bounding back and forth in time, slowly unveiling little revelations along the way. Her writing is direct, unfussy, leavened with wry humor and one hilarious scene in which David, never to experience the joys of fatherhood, shows Holly’s children how to fire exploding tampons. And there is the occasional poetic flash of searing emotional power, as when David addresses his siblings. “There are people who live their whole lives without ever experiencing the feeling of being at the right place at the right time, of just standing at the center of your own life. I feel that way now; and I want to thank you for showing up here, in this moment.’’ May we all have that moment.

Sandra Rodriguez Barron is the author of The Heiress of Water, winner of the International Latino Book Award for debut fiction. The recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and a National Association of Latino Arts and Culture Grant, she was born in Puerto Rico, lived in the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, and now lives with her family in Connecticut.

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