One of our recommended books is A Million Reasons Why by Jessica Strawser

A MILLION REASONS WHY

A Novel


Jessica Strawser’s A Million Reasons Why is “a fascinating foray into the questions we are most afraid to ask” (Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author)–the story of two women who discover a bond between them that will change both their lives forever.

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.

But as they step into the unfamiliar realm of sisterhood, the roles will reverse in ways no one could have foreseen.

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Jessica Strawser’s A Million Reasons Why is “a fascinating foray into the questions we are most afraid to ask” (Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author)–the story of two women who discover a bond between them that will change both their lives forever.

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.

But as they step into the unfamiliar realm of sisterhood, the roles will reverse in ways no one could have foreseen.

Caroline lives a full, happy life—thriving career, three feisty children, enviable marriage, and a close-knit extended family. She couldn’t have scripted it better. Except for one thing:

She’s about to discover her fundamental beliefs about them all are wrong.

Sela lives a life in shades of gray, suffering from irreversible kidney failure. Her marriage crumbled in the wake of her illness. Her beloved mother, always her closest friend, unexpectedly passed away. She refuses to be defined by her grief, but still, she worries what will happen to her two-year-old son if she doesn’t find a donor match in time.

She’s the only one who knows Caroline is her half sister and may also be her best hope for a future. But Sela’s world isn’t as clear-cut as it appears—and one misstep could destroy it all.

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  • St. Martin's Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2021
  • 368 Pages
  • 9781250241627

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About Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the author of A Million Reasons WhyJessica Strawser is the author of the book club favorites Almost Missed You, Not That I Could Tell (a Book of the Month selection) and Forget You Know Me. She is Editor-at-Large for Writer’s Digest, and her work has appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love, Publishers Weekly, and other fine venues. She lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati.

Praise

“A Million Reasons Why is a fascinating foray into the questions we are most afraid to ask: what constitutes family, what are our obligations to those we love, where does American healthcare fail the most, what secrets are unforgivable? And in case you need another reason to read this book: there are two massive twists you’ll never see coming.” – Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things and A Spark Of Light

“Don’t miss this searching, fraught family drama by a master of her craft. Jessica Stawser gives us a twisty plot, combined with deeply emotional content, in a novel that examines the most profound questions of our hearts. This is a story that will stay in your heart long after the last page is turned.” – #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs

“From the opening line to the heart-healing ending, A Million Reasons Why is an immersive and startling novel of great compassion with plot twists that will take your breath away. When all we know is turned upside down and inside out, who do we become? Strawser isn’t afraid of the bigger questions and this beautiful exploration of family, loyalty and love will both break and heal your heart. Powerful, poignant and profound — don’t miss this compelling novel from a master storyteller.” New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry

A Million Reasons Why is the emotionally gripping story of two half-sisters, each with her own secrets, who find each other as adults. It’s deftly paced and surprising, and Strawser’s characters are so layered and flawed and human that I came to care about them deeply. Heartbreaking yet hopeful, this astute exploration of the bonds and limitations of family is a perfect book club pick.” New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson

A Million Reasons Why is a heartbreaking, absorbing story with an irresistible premise: a random DNA test reveals you have a sister you’ve always wanted, a potential life-saver. Strawser skillfully explores what it means to be family, to rethink the pivotal hinge points in a person’s life.” – Angie Kim, bestselling author of Miracle Creek

“A standout novel… seamless writing style, complex characters, and layered plot. The high concept will attract book groups and fans of Jodi Picoult.”Booklist (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think Sela took the right approach in reaching out to her sister for a relationship? Should she have been more upfront about her circumstances to start, or perhaps declined to reach out at all? What influence did Doug and Leigh have (or fail to have) on the way she handled things?

2. How does the marriage of Sela and Doug compare with that of Caroline and Walt? Do you think, if Caroline and Walt had gone through similar struggles, they would have stayed together?

3. Explore the theme of mothers in this novel. Both Rebecca and Hannah have made grave mistakes in the past, but also sacrifices for what they felt was right. In what ways do Sela and Caroline need to decide whether a mother’s love triumphs over past faults? How do their mothers (and father) influence their own attitudes toward parenthood?

4. Rebecca and Hannah had a surrogate sisterhood that ultimately failed. What bearing does that ultimately have on the literal sisterhood bond between their daughters?

5. Walt and Caroline have a unique arrangement for their marriage. Does what they’ve done make sense to you? Do you think that, perhaps, they might have been in love all along?

6. Sela wants more children and cannot have them,while Leigh has another baby coming even though she wasn’t prepared to be a mother again. How are they able to be there for each other, despite coming from two very different places in life? How is what’s happened a barrier between them?

7. When Sela tells herself—and others—that she has changed her mind about asking for or accepting help, do you believe her?

8. Do you think Caroline was wrong in seeking out medical information about donation in spite of her family’s objections—and without involving them? Did you see her as driven by guilt, a desire to be a hero, or something else?

9. In granting Hannah’s request not to acknowledge Sela, is Fred taking the easy way out? Is he being cowardly, or honestly trying to do what’s best? How does his reaction complicate things for Caroline, and how does it simplify things for Sela?

10. Dr. Kay Adams plays a small but essential role in Caroline’s thought process about altruism and organ donation—and, ultimately, in Sela’s, too. Did she challenge your own beliefs as well? Did the negative aspects of Dr. Kay’s experience surprise you?

11. Discuss Sela and Brody. Do you believe how she chose to see the world was a helpful way to cope? Did it do more harm than good?

12. How did your feelings toward Doug change as Sela’s story unfolded?

13. At the start of the book, how did you see the end resolving? Did that expectation or prediction change as the book went on?

14. Fast forward five years from now. Caroline’s extended family and Sela were very much at odds in the beginning. How does the last scene set the stage going forward? How do you think their relationships change as time goes on?

Excerpt

1

Caroline

Long before Caroline ever felt compelled to seriously consider the split between nature and nurture, she knew exactly which traits she owed to her dad.

Number one was that growing up with a father like Caroline’s, you couldn’t not learn to look at just about anything from a new angle when you needed one. He was a market research analyst who never could quite take his brain off duty—and was perhaps a bit too remiss to disappoint his favorite clients. Thus, when Caroline was down after, for example, getting only six out of ten correct on a surprise quiz, he’d say, “Well, if this were a sporting event, you would have beat the test.” The “glass half-full” question was not even debatable in his eyes.

“Anything point five and above, you round up.”

Disarming though he was, as an adult Caroline begrudgingly grew to understand why her mom could be a killjoy in those moments, calling him out for oversimplifying things or excusing poor behavior. But by then, his influence was inherent. Caroline was no math whiz, but she did pride herself on being a quick-thinking and creative problem solver—an instinct that, as an event director and mother of three kids in the single-digit age range, she called upon no fewer than a dozen times a day.

Besides, he’d taught her a valuable lesson: that data, while itself trustworthy, could always be skewed—and often was.

So when she first saw the email from a woman she’d never heard of, claiming Caroline was her half sister, her mind skipped right over the half and immediately to the sister part, with no half measure of alarm. But then it backed right up to the starting line and dismissed the whole idea as nonsense.

She’d been in her office, fielding a call from a new staffer who was unsure how to break down that day’s trade show—Caroline knew she should have insisted on going along to the conference center—and packing up her laptop bag, when the new message popped onto her screen. She had exactly forty-five minutes to pick up Owen at preschool, retrieve the girls from her in-laws’, run guiltily through the most wholesome drive-through she could find, and unload them all on the sidelines of Riley’s soccer practice. This was the level of busy she thrived on: There was reassurance in being indispensable at work, in shepherding her children from one well-rounded activity to the next. Already on a roll, she sped right on through the cascade of emotions that trailed the email: with scarcely a passing glance at initial shock on to doubt to dispossession.

What lingered, as she snapped the laptop shut, wished her staffer luck, and ran across the parking lot to the minivan she’d caved and stopped feeling embarrassed by, was annoyance.

This was exactly why she never saw the appeal of those mail-in DNA tests the rest of the world had gone gaga over. Seemed like she heard about erratic results as often as sought-after ones—but when Walt applauded his genius at gifting them to the extended family last Christmas, she hadn’t rained on his tee time. For one thing, she appreciated his willingness to divide the holiday shopping—too many of her fellow working-mom friends shouldered the whole burden, citing husbandly disinterest or incompetence or procrastination, and thus spent the last two months of every year in a frenzy. In the well-oiled system she and Walt had developed, not arguing over stuff like this kept the gears greased. Christmas morning, she’d merely exchanged a knowing side-eye with Dad, then smiled and volunteered to coordinate mailing the kits and creating their log-ins on the spot.

Obviously, it wasn’t possible she could have an unidentified sister, half or otherwise. The family compared scorecards as they came and found them unremarkable, though Walt did lament their post–St. Patrick’s Day arrival, as his side discovered a surprise sliver of Irish ancestry. As if he hadn’t spent the holiday downing Guinness anyway. No one received a bombshell that their much older sister was actually their mother, or that they were adopted or had ties to a loathed enemy—and even if they had, what meaningful difference would it make? When it came to families linked by marriage, theirs was one of the few she knew that genuinely got along, merging traditions and celebrations, the more happily the merrier. Perhaps this owed a lot to her and Walt both being only children, but a decade in, she was more grateful than ever for the gift they’d given Owen, Lucy, and Riley in having four grandparents so involved in their lives.

Sure, they squabbled, and Mom in particular could be a little judgmental, but the prevailing feeling was that together, they were stronger and could withstand any storm life blew their way.

Or, in the words of Caroline’s best friend, Maureen, who had zero tolerance for her own family and even less for harmonious ones, they were “the sort of thing you’d picture if you’d eaten something bad and needed to make yourself throw up.”

Secrecy was antithetical to who they were. Caroline had seen her parents’ results firsthand. Case closed.

It irked her, as she drove from one pickup to the next, that this dared vie for space in her at-capacity brain. She tried to focus on asking the kids about their school days, playing their daily game of each naming a high point and a low one. Owen was proud of his finger-painted art project but less enamored with that day’s “yucky noodle” lunch. Lucy had befriended a new girl in kindergarten and, true to mediating middle-child form, could not think of a single bad thing to report. Riley had scored a goal at recess but was annoyed to have homework. In short, everything was perfectly ordinary in their little worlds.

Everything except Caroline.

An hour later, in her folding chair on the sideline, as Riley ran after her teammates and Owen and Lucy divided the fries and apple slices from their kids’ meals and Caroline choked down a rubbery dish purporting to be salad, she pulled out her phone and read the email again. More carefully.

The woman’s name was Sela, and she was the same age as Caroline—their birthdays a couple of short months apart, thirty-five years ago. She lived a half day’s drive away, in a North Carolina town that, oddly, Caroline had once considered moving to, and had just completed her test with the same company Walt had patronized. Only then did Caroline register that this woman’s results wouldn’t have been available when she reviewed her own. But if the database had flagged them as such a close genetic match, wouldn’t she have been notified? This had to be some clerical or technical error. If she waited to respond, maybe it would resolve itself—the company issuing an apology about notifications gone haywire or Sela realizing her own mistake and retracting her inquiry.

Caroline felt a twinge of sympathy for the woman. She said she’d never known her dad—and Caroline couldn’t help but think of what a different person she herself might have been without her own. A lesser person, certainly. She’d wait a day or two and, if no further email arrived, break it gently that Sela was barking up the wrong family tree.

But that night, by the time the kids’ stories were read and the calls for one more drink or one last snuggle had subsided, her conviction had, too.

“You don’t think…?” she asked Walt. They were changing at last into lounge clothes, alone for the first time all day, in their large master suite—his and her walk-ins, jetted soaking tub, reading nook—the one upgraded indulgence in their otherwise middle-of-the-road suburban home. Walt insisted that after having three kids in five years, they’d earned it, and though she’d have saved the funds if left to her own devices, she was glad. So many of their friends’ marriages had already failed, and a common denominator seemed to be letting parenthood trump all else. Walt kept the room immaculate, a sanctuary, and feeling as if she belonged here was enough to remind her that she was more than just an especially resourceful woman at commanding chaos.

Even if she did secretly like being known in their playgroup as MacGyver Mom.

He was returning his suit to the closet now, lips pursed, thinking before he answered, and she wondered if he was regretting having purchased the tests, just as she was regretting never voicing an objection. No one in their family took a particular interest in genealogy. If she’d come up with something better last December, they would not be in this awkward position now.

“Still have your parents’ log-ins?” he asked.

She cringed. She’d hoped he would dismiss it out of hand, the way she itched to. Which was when she realized that somewhere between her initial scoff of impossibility and this moment of naked truth, she’d become legitimately scared to look.

The house wasn’t cold—Ohio Septembers remained fully rooted in summer at the start—but she shivered, and he tossed her the microfiber robe from the hook on the closet door. “I guess, if they haven’t changed their passwords … I don’t even know if mine still works.”

“One way to find out.”

“It just feels a little—”

“Wine. I’ll pour us wine.”

By the time they’d arranged themselves side by side, cabernet by cabernet, at the built-in desk that divided the kitchen from the family room, Caroline just wanted to get it over with. To laugh at how easily a misdirected email had thrown her off and feel a welcome stab of guilt over doubting her parents for even a second. She peppered Walt with questions about his day as she located her browser’s bookmark for the provider’s website and keyed in a handful of her go-to passwords before hitting on the right one. He was midway through a not-distracting-enough story about his boss’s allergic reaction to their banquet lunch when she caught sight of the red star indicating a New Match! from the “Relative Finder.” Walt fell silent mid-word.

She met his eyes for a nervous instant before clicking on the alert, checking box after Are you sure? box, agreeing that yes, she did want to see the result, though in truth she did not, and then holding her breath while an icon spun on the screen, working away. Then it was gone, and in its place appeared a name with an italicized tag highlighting the connection.

Sela Bell. Half sibling.

“Click here,” Walt said before she could process what she was seeing. He pointed at a prompt to see what other relatives you have in common. Robotically, she obeyed.

No matches at this time.

She exhaled, leaning back in her chair. “Well, neither Mom nor Dad is here, and they’re both in the database. Obviously it really is a mistake.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Thank God!”

“Hmm.” Walt didn’t laugh. He was reading the fine print beneath the subhead What Does This Mean? “You’d better verify that your parents opted in. Looks like you can decline having your info be searchable.”

“I seriously doubt either of them messed with the defaults. I did the whole thing.”

“Only for due diligence, before you get back to this woman.”

Caroline logged out, then in as her mom: Hannah Shively. The password she’d set for the rest of the family still worked: MerryXmas. The in-box lay dormant. She scrolled to her settings and found the opt-in box checked. “See? I don’t think they’ve touched this.” She glanced at him, realizing how that might sound. “Not that they didn’t appreciate the gift, I’m sure.”

Walt still didn’t crack a smile. “Now your dad.”

He was too kind to point out that it had been pointless to check Mom’s account in the first place—or that she was stalling. She logged out, then in as Fred Shively, and felt her heart lift when she saw his notifications blank as well. “See? We’ve already confirmed my parents are my parents, and they don’t match her, so—” She stopped scrolling.

His database opt-in box was unchecked.

An oversight on her part? Or something he’d logged in himself and removed? If he had something to hide, surely he’d have changed the password from the one Caroline had chosen. She checked the box, clicked OK, and watched the spinning icon reappear. The room had fallen the conspicuous kind of silent, the breath in her own lungs and Walt’s again stilled.

New Match!

She couldn’t click fast enough. Yes, yes, I’m sure, show me. More spinning. Then:

Sela Bell. Daughter.

Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Strawser