During our lifetime, we are constantly asking ourselves: Who are we, really?
That is what author Sandra Rodriguez Barron seeks to answer in Stay With Me (Harper Paperbacks; $15, out now) through the lives of five siblings, who as toddlers were found together inside the cabin of a luxury boat after a devastating hurricane hit Puerto Rico’s western coast in 1979. They are left without a trace of their personal history or any link to their past lives.
But even after different families adopt David, Taina, Holly, Raymond and Adrian, they grow up as siblings, with a five-star tattoo inked on each to represent their bond.
When David is diagnosed with brain cancer and begins to have flashbacks that give them clues of life before the hurricane, they wrestle with the opportunity to search for their true identities. “The characters in this book are forced to define what family is; to look at how important blood is,” Rodriguez Barron tells us.
Before writing Stay with Me, the author had been contemplating the idea of adopting a child from an orphanage in El Salvador, where she had lived part of her life. “I was interested in this idea of the children who are given an opportunity out of this very difficult circumstance.”
Rodriguez Barron knows difficult circumstances. She lost her 64-year-old father Juan Rodriguez to brain cancer in 2006. Since then, the 43-year-old author became interested in the effects of the disease, which also took the life of a close friend. In exploring David’s battle with cancer, Rodriguez Barron decided to allow his character to speak to the reader in the present, while the rest of the book is written in past tense through the prism of a narrator. “He has a different sense of time. He only has the here and now,” Rodriguez Barron says of David’s terminal illness. “[The others] can tell the story recalling it because you presume they’ve moved into the future.”
Through this sense of urgency, David helps those nearest to him, including his girlfriend Julia, find something that completes each of them. For Benjamin, it’s overcoming a substance addiction, while Taina has to break her inhibitions in order to tap into her own creativity. Holly alludes to the author’s personal struggle in deciding to adopt the girl she always wanted. And for Julia and Adrian, an up-and-coming musician, it’s finding true love—with each other.
“She knows she doesn’t have a future with David,” says the author about the relationship between David and Julia, who stays to offer moral support through the cancer treatment. “They do love and care for each other. And through that process Julia allows herself to fall in love.”
Set partly in Connecticut, the book speaks to Rodriguez Barron’s own search for identity after spending most of her grown-up life in Connecticut, and being one of two Latinas in her high school.
“I wanted to write about that kind of disconnect that you feel if you couldn’t live in a Latino city,” said the author.
As part of his quest for answers, David invites his siblings for a vacation at Julia’s family home in Griswold Island off the coast of Connecticut. In the sibling’s time together on the island, Rodriguez Barron shows us how sometimes we don’t want to know the truth if it means losing what we value the most.
“You don’t have to be limited by nature,” says the author of the relationships we witness in Stay with Me. “Bonds are created by experience. “
And with this book, Rodriguez Barron accomplishes just that – creating a book that not only draws readers in, but also shares emotions that feel genuine based on the fact that they come from her own experiences.
Read the book, sign up for the Latina book club and check back to enter into the discussion and to find out what next month’s book club selection will be.