As we enter the holiday season and the end of my 2019 Writer-in-Residence term, I want to thank all of you for making this year as the Library’s literary ambassador so special. The enthusiastic readers I met at Branch Library book clubs, the determined writers who brought pages to my office hours, the brilliant attendees at my workshops, and all of you who reached out—whether in person or online, in ways big or small—have made this experience a greater honor than I ever could have anticipated.
You have transformed me into a better writer and a more inspired human, and I am forever grateful.
Heartfelt congratulations to Dani McClain on being named the 2020 Writer-in-Residence: This community is lucky to have her, and she, in turn, is lucky to have you. She’s bringing a fantastic perspective (not to mention portfolio) to the table, and I’m looking forward to following along as she shares her wealth of insights in the year ahead.
I’m a regular in a handful of branch libraries: If you see me out and about, please don’t be a stranger! My love of reading is a lifetime in the making, and my writing career is just getting started. I look forward to remaining a part of this Library community for years to come.
I’d love to stay connected. You can find me on social media at:
• Facebook @jessicastrawserauthor, opens a new window
• Instagram @jessicastrawser, opens a new window
• Twitter @jessicastrawser, opens a new window
• And if you’d like to sign up for my email list at jessicastrawser.com, opens a new window, you’ll hear from me only when I have real, big news to share, like a new book release or series of events coming up.
Speaking of, and last but not least, as they say: My final requirement as your outgoing Writer-in-Residence is to share an excerpt of the work I’ve completed during my term. My newest novel, tentatively titled Everything Worth Anything, is the story of two half-sisters (one in Cincinnati and one in Brevard, North Carolina) who discover the other exists through a mail-in DNA test. For one, it’s a dream come true. For the other, it’s a waking nightmare. Still, both feel compelled to explore their new bond—but when they do, the roles reverse in unexpected, life-altering ways.
As Everything Worth Anything heads into production at St. Martin’s Press, I’m awaiting a cover and official release date, but I hope my friends at the Library will allow me to pop back in and share when the time comes. In the meantime, here’s a very early sneak peek of the opening pages. I’m so excited to release this book into the world and thrilled at this opportunity to share a glimpse with you first.
Signing off, with gratitude and all best wishes,
EXCERPT: CHAPTER 1
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 0.5 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-thru 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 reliable 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 logins 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. Like 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 schooldays, 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 short months apart, thirty-six 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.