The Shortest Way Home
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Sean Doran has spent the last twenty years as a nurse in war zones and natural disaster areas around the world. His mission has always been to help the poorest of the poor, and the work has allowed him to escape his own painful memories, which include a mother who died young of Huntington's disease and the sneaking suspicion that the genetically passed disease might get him next.
After twenty years, he's burned out, so he decides to go home to Belham, Massachusetts, for a short interlude between assignments. Soon after he arrives, he realizes that the household is barely functioning. His iron-willed Aunt Vivvy, who raised him in his parents' absence, is showing signs of dementia, which may or may not be related to Huntington's. His late brother's son, Kevin, appears to have behavioral problems. And his sister, Deirdre, is embittered that Sean has left her to take care of thefamily when she desperately wants to go off and pursue an acting career. Reluctantly, Sean starts to build a closer relationship with his orphaned nephew and to take on more responsibility around the house. Meanwhile, he and Deirdre must decide what to do about their ailing but still coolly stubborn aunt.
Luckily, Sean's two closest friends from high school are also in Belham. His buddy Cormac McGrath hires Sean at the family bakery. He accidentally encounters Rebecca Feingold, the class wallflower, and they quickly resume the candid conversations they had as teenagers. And then there's Chrissy Stillman, Sean's onetime crush who's recently divorced and unexpectedly showing interest in him.
As the days pass, the unencumbered life Sean has so carefully built is becoming increasingly complicated. He must decide whether he's ready to take on the family responsibilities and emotional commitments he's successfully avoided so far, or go back to jetting across the world to help less demanding strangers. Juliette Fay's third novel captures the joy and pain of everyday life with a relatable cast of characters and pitch-perfect storytelling. Earnest, funny, and heartfelt, The Shortest Way Home is about healing old wounds, redefining familial roles, and finding yourself where you least expect to.
Juliette Fay's first novel, Shelter Me, was a 2009 Massachusetts Book Award Book of the Year nominee. Her second novel, Deep Down True, was shortlisted for the Women's Fiction Award by the American Library Association. She received a bachelor's degree from Boston College and a master's degree from Harvard University. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children.
Q. The Shortest Way Home centers around a family afflicted with Huntington's disease, a condition that is often diagnosed by middle adulthood. By the time the novel begins, Sean seems to have dodged the bullet. How did you decide when to start this story?
I became fascinated by Huntington's years ago when the mother of a close friend had the disease. I remember listening to a radio program that aired in the late '80s around the time that the genetic test for Huntington's first became available. Medical professionals were stunned by how few people wanted to take the test. (This is my memory of the radio piece, which I've unfortunately never been able to find again.) Of the three people who had taken it, one tested positive. His reaction was resignation, something along the lines of "I always thought I had it and now I know for sure." The other two people tested negative . . . and they were angry! They had spent their whole lives with Huntington's looming in the background, only to find out they could have lived without all that stress and uncertainty.
That really grabbed me. What do you do when the worst doesn't happen? How do you move forward when a defining factor in your life turns out never to have been there in the first place? I wanted to start the story asking that question. The basis for Sean's whole vision of his life appears to be evaporating. What now?
Q. Sean's return after so many years away is a wonderful catalyst for the Doran family to begin to heal old wounds and reconfigure their respective individual roles. How did you develop the arc for each of these characters? Did any of their journeys surprise you?
I decided that if I was going to give Sean an identity crisis, I would give everybody else one, too! Each character is at a point of enormous personal change. Aunt Vivvy has always been intellectually sharp and in control. Now she's losing the part of herself she values most. Kevin is the quiet kid who won't join in, but he's heading off to middle school, and he's going to have to face his issues. Deirdre is trying to launch herself toward the one thing she's always wanted—and she may have only a narrow window to enjoy it, if it turns out she has Huntington's. Rebecca has spent her entire life under her parents' thumb, but now she's trying to bust free and follow her own agenda. Da is the absent father, but after almost thirty years he wants to be a part of his family's life again, if they'll let him. Cormac and Barb want to have a baby, but that's not working out as planned, so they have to consider new options. Even George the dog is undergoing big changes in her role—from aggressive beast to obedient protector.
There were no big surprises in character arc for me, but there are always little ones, which make it a pleasure for me as their creator. I loved when Sean was a jerk to Rebecca and she threw him out. I didn't see that coming until it "happened," and I was saying "Go, girl!" to the computer screen.
Q. You capture the subtle mood shifts in conversations between characters so elegantly. What is your technique for tuning in to their emotional lives?
For me, writing each character is a little like method acting. I have to know a whole lot more about them than the reader will see on the page. I have to feel how they feel and be empathetic with even the most hard to like characters. This helps me give depth to each one.
I've always been fascinated by how people talk—or don't talk—to each other. So much in life is communicated nonverbally, and that can be hard to get into print. It's easy to fall back on making characters overly verbose when a look or a gesture or tone of voice will get the point across much more authentically. I often act it out so I can feel the movements and hear the tone and try to incorporate these clues into the exchange. Then I aim to have every single word they do actually say mean something. If it doesn't, it's out.
Q. This is your first novel from a man's point of view. Can you talk about how it changed the writing process for you?
It was a challenge, but also so much fun! The protagonists of my two previous novels, Shelter Me and Deep Down True, are suburban moms who are newly single. That's me (although I'm still married). Sean Doran is a man with no kids, who's never been married—never even been in a relationship. Other than volunteer work in a third world country, Sean and I have virtually nothing in common, right down to that pesky Y chromosome. It was a blast.
The love scenes were a real challenge. I came at them from the premise that men tend to be more physical and less analytical than women in the heat of the moment. They are—on the whole—less likely to be asking themselves "Do I really like this person? Where is this going?" even as passion flares. This of course is somewhat stereotypical, but I had to start somewhere.
The scenes between Sean and Cormac were also tricky. How do men talk to each other with no women around? How do they express their appreciation and concerns? Men don't always come out and say that stuff to each other (and I certainly wasn't going with the clichéd "I love you, man!"). These two have a longstanding and deep friendship. But they're also regular guys. There's a lot of support and compassion between them, but Sean and Cormac don't express these feelings as explicitly as women tend to.
By the way, my husband was my go-to in this area. I was so relieved when he read those scenes and said, "Yeah, that's pretty much how it is."
Q. The issue of sensory processing disorder and how it affects children is a fascinating one. What made you want to write about it?
Sensory processing is interesting because it's often misunderstood and it wouldn't be something Sean would know about from his own work. If Kevin had been a generally happy, well-adjusted kid, it would have been easier for Sean to leave. I liked the idea Sean becoming more compassionate and attached to Kevin as he gets more drawn into the mystery of Kevin's behavior issues.
Q. Abandoned by his own father, Sean nonetheless wrestles the book with the question of whether to stay and be a Kevin. How did you bring him to this decision?
One of the big questions this story raises is: What binds us to one another when the responsibility isn't clear? Is Sean duty-bound to stay? It's not his kid, it's not his life, and in fact he's worked really hard to set things up so he has no permanent responsibilities. Until now, he could come and go as he pleased. But as he grows closer to Kevin, he has a harder and harder time figuring out how to leave. Falling in love with Rebecca compounds the problem even further. We've all had those "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" moments. For Sean, the answer to that question will have a drastic impact on everyone he loves.
Q. There is an almost deceptive simplicity to your writing style—it's so clear and seamless. How do you achieve this effect? Who are your favorite authors, and who has inspired your work?
I try to keep the writing free of anything that isn't absolutely necessary, first because it decelerates the forward motion of the story, and second because I think readers are generally pretty intuitive. They can infer most of what they need from characters' actions and don't always want as much exposition and explanation as we sometimes think they do. Personally, I like to figure things out when I'm reading, and I'm more engaged if the writer doesn't detail every last motivation or stick of furniture for me.
Some of my favorite authors are Dennis Lehane (The Given Day), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Malcolm Gladwell (Blink and Outliers), Vanessa Diffenbaugh (The Language of Flowers), Jonathan Tropper (This is Where I Leave You and Everything Changes), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead and Home), and so many others.
Q. Sean's father coming back into the picture toward the end of the book is something of a surprise. How did you make the decision to bring him into the story?
There were two reasons, really. Throughout his adulthood Sean has more or less steeled himself against missing his father. And yet it's a wound that never quite healed. I wanted him to experience having a father again to help him relate more deeply to Kevin's loss. Bringing Da back puts that right in Sean's face.
Second, through research for a family trip to Ireland, I became fascinated with the history of Great Blasket Island. I decided to incorporate it into the story I was working on, which became The Shortest Way Home. And there you have it—the randomness with which authors sometimes choose their plot threads.
Q. Your novels seem to have a common theme of people at a crossroads forced to redefine their lives. What draws you to this theme?
I guess it's because the unexpected turn of events that force us to change course are what make life so endlessly interesting. You're going along, thinking you've got things in hand, or are at least moderately comfortable in your rut, and something falls out of the sky. I like to start stories there, or shortly thereafter, because the event is usually not as interesting as how we react and how the flow chart of possibilities careens from one repercussion to the next.
Q. What's the most important feedback you've ever gotten from readers? What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The most meaningful feedback has always been, "This book helped me." As a fiction writer I never anticipated that people would get anything other than a good story from my books. But when someone writes to say something like, "Now I understand my widowed sister better" or, "Now I appreciate my husband more" or, "Now I'm more compassionate with my middle schooler who's driving me crazy," it's like winning the lottery.
From The Shortest Way Home, I hope readers will feel that they've gotten a good story and some things to chew on even after the book is over. Some of those might include: What is family, and to whom are we bound? How do we find redemption amid suffering? How do we step up to the plate and hit those curve balls life inevitably pitches at us? And do fruit, sugar, and a flaky crust really make the world a sweeter place?
Yes, I think they do.
- After spending most of his adult life as a nurse in developing countries, Sean returns home to reconnect with what's left of his family. How might things have turned out differently if he'd gone home more often?
- The Doran family has dealt with enormous loss. How does each member of the family cope, and how well are these coping methods working?
- When he first comes home, Sean falls into some old habits, including his teenage crush on Chrissy Stillman. In what ways is Sean stuck in his adolescence? What events help him grow up a bit over the course of the story?
- What does Sean learn about his brother Hugh through other characters in this book? How does this affect Sean's decisions about his own future? Do you think Sean will be a good parent? What will his shortcomings be?
- Outwardly Aunt Vivvy displays mixed emotions about her role as sudden parent to the Doran kids. What do you think her true feelings are? Why does she hide them?
- Sean's relationship with God shifts over the course of this book. How does it evolve and why? Is destiny a permanent thing or can it change?
- What was the saddest moment of the story for you? The funniest? The most surprising?
- Which character are you most like? How did you relate to that character's learning curve over the course of the story?
- Though he has only ever worked in extremely impoverished communities, Sean takes a temporary job as a school nurse. Were you surprised by what Sean learns from this experience?
- At the end of the book, Sean and Rebecca have some decisions to make about their future. What do you think their life will look like? What advice would you give them?
- What character would you most like to have lunch with and why? What questions would you ask? What would you like to tell him or her?
- If you were at risk for a genetic disease, would you get tested?