A Million Reasons Why
There’s something delightfully twisted about reading A Million Reasons Why just weeks before Christmas (which I happened to do, though this review won’t be published until March). For it is a Christmas gift of a 23andMe style DNA testing kit that sets the plot going along on its delicious way. It’s a decent book, though occasionally its narrative meanders a bit into dull minutiae.
Caroline Porter is a well-adjusted, successful woman. She has a happy family of three – toddler Owen, kindergartener Lucy, and seven(ish) Riley – a good marriage to husband Walt, a job she likes, great friends and a positive relationship with her parents. All seems to be well – until that DNA test, which reveals the existence of a biological half-sister, the result of her father’s adulterous affair with a close friend. Understandably, no one else in the family is interested in looking up this connection when the other woman makes first contact, but after receiving an impassioned email from her half-sister, Caroline feels compelled to correspond with her.
That half-sister is named Sela Astin, and for Sela, Caroline is a godsend. She submitted herself to the DNA website in the hope of finding a genetic match, because she’s been experiencing irreversible kidney failure over the past few years, which has decimated her marriage and left her a struggling single mother to her son, two-year-old Brody. With the prospect of a match for a transplant being close to nil, Sela begins an email correspondence with Caroline planning to ask her for the impossible – a lifesaving healthy kidney.
The news of Sela’s existence has had devastating consequences for Caroline’s family. Her parents’ marriage is suddenly on the rocks after years of happy stability, exacerbating her father’s heart condition, and her connection to Sela has caused Caroline’s feelings for her old boyfriend to resurface. Meanwhile, Sela begins to make friends – with the new nurse doing her dialysis, with her new family – all the while gearing up to ask Caroline for what’s called The Big Give in transplant terms.
A Million Reasons Why is best when it focuses on Sela and Caroline’s familial relationship, which works realistically and beautifully as they become friends and then sisters. The book’s biggest problem is when the narrative spins its wheels, trying to shock the audience with new and ultimately unimportant narrative twists.
Caroline’s life is upended and much frustration is introduced – but the end result isn’t anything particularly interesting; it just confirms her relationships and who she is. The more interesting personal journey goes to Sela, who gets to bloom and grow here, becoming a new, more thoroughly healed woman. I wish Caroline had had more development along those lines.
I liked the complicated, angry relationships that exist between Sela and her ex-husband, and between Caroline’s parents, who have to acclimate to a new truth. Caroline’s husband generally comes off as simply ‘nice’ and uncomplicated, and her kids alternate between being very spot-on and a little bit cardboard.
On the other hand, the Kentucky backdrop of the story does a good job coloring the characters and their worlds, and you can smell the smoke in the air. Also kudos to Strawser for writing a smoothly-written tale that’s very well-researched when it comes to the process of kidney donation. And the plot, while a little soapy, never fully gives in to the possibility of it turning to pure cheese.
A Million Readers Why will please folks who like Rona Jaffe or Kristin Hanna, and anyone who enjoys women’s fiction when it leans a little bit on the soap.