Release date: March 23, 2021
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ (8/10)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: A Million Reasons Why is a modern fiction novel written by Jessica Strawser, editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest magazine and author of three previous fiction novels. The book is scheduled to be released in March 2021 by St. Martin’s Press. The tagline for A Million Reasons Why reads, “When two strangers are linked by a mail-in DNA test, it’s an answered prayer―that is, for one half-sister. For the other, it will dismantle everything she knows to be true.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Caroline is living a seemingly charmed life in Ohio as an event director and a happily married wife. She has three young children with her husband, Walt, who – while pulling his evenly-distributed share of the family weight – decides to give the entire family DNA ancestry kits for Christmas. This well-meaning gift has sudden and irreparable consequences when Caroline receives an email from a woman named Sela, who claims to be her half-sister.
Sela lives in NC and is the same age as Caroline; her mother has recently died, and she’s seeking relatives she may have through her unknown father. Hoping the connection is just a clerical error, Caroline and Walt sign on to view her parents’ DNA accounts…and unwittingly trigger an alert that goes directly to her father, saying he has a daughter. This email sparks an avalanche of conflict and confrontations; what does this development mean, both for Caroline’s family moving forward, and for her (possibly erroneous) lifelong impressions of the parents she thought she knew so well?
Caroline wrestles with all of the new revelations that have upended her life and her relationships with her mom and dad. Even as she ponders over all of the newly revealed “might-have-beens,” she realizes that she has an opportunity to forge a new relationship with a sister she never knew she had. She decides to respond to Sela’s email, and they strike up a tentative and delicate friendship.
But Sela has a secret, and one that will further change and threaten her fragile new family connections: she’s sick, in dire need of a transplant to survive, and she has no matches. And, despite the pleas of her desperate friends and nurses (and ex-husband), she’s not sure she can put the burden of her own health on her newly found sister. Can Sela overcome her fears and ask for the one thing she desperately needs to survive? And would Caroline be willing to make a sacrifice for someone she barely knows, who has changed almost every aspect of her life – even if they are related by blood?
MY THOUGHTS: This was my first read by Strawser, but I would be happy to read any of her future fiction novels. The story is told by both Caroline and Sela’s viewpoints; the chapters switch off from one narrator to the next. In one very specific way regarding her writing style, I can say she’s a writer that I would liken to Stephen King (or, on a much more unprofessional level, myself) in this: she (at least in this ARC) is content to use about 30-50 words where probably 10 would do. But within this story and this specific type of fiction, I found it endearing to the story and enjoyable.
A Million Reasons Why is, at heart, a thoughtful and timely story with an ultimately uplifting message about the importance of family, friendship, and – above all else – forgiveness. Strawser weaves a complex plot that touches on so many topics popular in women’s fiction: family relationships, betrayal, regrets, curiosity about paths not taken, and new relationships. (There’s a reason why the blurb on the cover was written by the master of women’s fiction herself, Jodi Picoult.)
Strawser places this story within the framework of a very trendy topic right now, DNA research and ancestry; in real life, thanks to mail-order DNA tests provided by companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe, a number of people have discovered previously unknown siblings and shocking truths about their parentage, in addition to their requested DNA breakdown. And while finding a half-sibling isn’t a complete surprise for Sela, who has never known her father’s side of the family or whether she had any siblings at all, it comes as a total shock to Caroline because it means her father betrayed her mother in ways she finds incomprehensible. Now, she must reconcile the family she thought she had – one where “rare disagreements that escalated peaked at a cold shoulder, never a confrontation” – with one where her parents concealed an illicit affair and a secret child for decades without hesitation.
Both Sela and Caroline undergo intensely private and public transformations in this story. Sela must contend with the guilt she feels over having to ask for help just to survive; she stubbornly refuses to ask Caroline to be tested to see if she’s a match, even as her perfectly controlled life spirals out. Sela thinks, not without bitterness, “How could anything seem so intimate and so impersonal at the same time, that humans could be reduced to a spare part?” And Caroline must come to terms with the fact that her mother and father have betrayed her in ways she never imagined. This causes her to ruminate on all the ways her life might have panned out differently: “What had signified hope and possibility for Sela had upended Caroline’s entire belief system – in her parents’ marriage, her mother’s character, even her own partner and whether her first choice might’ve been a better one.”
Sela’s situation is a tough one to read about, especially when you consider the stark reality of organ failure and the process to procure a transplant or donor. Strawser doesn’t shy away from the details of what living with a potentially terminal disease that gets progressively worse is like. At one point, Sela bemoans the days when she could carry around a refillable water bottle; now she has to very strictly limit her liquid intake. When she described what that unquenchable thirst is like, I realized all of the ways this struggle affects even the tiniest moments of a person’s daily life…and how complicated this could become in light of their relationships, both previous and newly forged.
Ultimately, both sisters have – for better or for worse – started a priceless relationship that they could never have imagined would exist a year earlier, and learned the REAL importance of family. Each woman receives some form of resolution to their story and their questions – whether it’s the future they’d planned for themselves, or not by a long shot. But as Caroline says, “Some gifts were better for the flaws” – and in this story, it seems like that’s Strawser’s goal. She’s saying our family (whether blood or chosen) won’t always behave in our best interests, or tell us the truth, or even be likable – but they’re still our family. And forgiveness is as much for ourselves as it could ever be for the person being forgiven, when it comes to our own happiness and contentment.