Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Shortest Way Home

.by Juliette Fay
New York, Penguin Books, 2012
386 pages     Fiction

Life is complicated. Life is messy. There is no way to escape either the complications or the messiness, so you might as well just make the best of it. That is the one sentence summation of The Shortest Way Home by Juliette Fay. If you have ever looked around at your life and thought “I gotta get out of here!” then this is the book for you.

Sean is a 40-something nurse who has been traveling from third world country to third world country for many years trying to do some good in the world even as he tries to escape his upbringing and the potential of a fatal genetic disease. He arrives home to New England for a short visit at the behest of his younger sister and finds himself caught up in family messiness. As Sean becomes more and more entangled in life back at home, he questions his purpose in life, the reasons for his wanderings, and his ability to change. It is a bit refreshing to have a male protagonist in this kind of family story; he is an interesting character as he tries to make sense of what life has become for his family, a family he has all but abandoned.

The Shortest Way Home has an abundance of characters, all with a lot of complications—all trying to negotiate through life’s messiness. Each character is fully developed with intriguing life circumstances. One reviewer says that the characters are “wonderfully imperfect lovable people.” The two characters I appreciated the most were Kevin, Sean’s orphaned nephew and Da, Sean’s long-lost father who arrives on the scene about half way through the book. Kevin is a pre-teen and has been virtually raising himself. He has sensory issues as well as ADD, but he has found a way to negotiate through life. The reader becomes so proud of him and the progress he makes, but the author doesn’t turn him into an unbelievable hero-like character. He remains a clueless pre-adolescent. Da, on the other hand, reminded me of several people I have known; someone whose life fell apart in his 30s and he has spent the last 30 years trying to put himself together again.

It is impossible to navigate in this brief book review all the topics that are discussed, “topics as varied as family loyalty, genetic destiny, responsibility, the duties of friendship and the strength of faith” in the words on one reviewer. Any one of these issues could be the theme of the book. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the whole plot could dissolve into absurdity. A book I read earlier this year did just that, and as I looked back on that review, I realized how delicately Fay handles all the issues of The Shortest Way Home. I kept reading because I really liked the characters and wanted to know how things would be resolved. Of course, as in all of life, there is no absolute resolution, but the characters find a way to clear back some of the brambles that cover the path to happiness.

Some of the more interesting questions raised in the book deal with Sean’s concerns about faith. His Catholic faith had served him well throughout his journeys and his nursing had been, in effect, a healing ministry. He prays over all his patients. But, things have changed. He tells his friend Rebecca: “I stopped believing in a God who cared.” She suggests that perhaps he had seen too much suffering. No, he admits that “It’s way more selfish than that. I stopped believing in a God who cared about me.” He had stopped believing that he had been chosen by God to do good in the world. An beguiling theme in and of itself.

I can recommend The Shortest Way Home to readers of family fiction or problem fiction. It is the third book of a series about a small New England town. You might also enjoy The World Without You by Joshua Henkin that I read a couple of months ago—similar themes, similar resolution—same literary quality. The Shortest Way Home was chosen as one of the top five best books of 2012 in women’s literature.

Juliette Fay’s website:


Laurie C said...

Just found your blog through the Book Blogs site. I'm a liberal librarian married to a Republican-leaning guy, too, so we have a lot in common (except the theological school!) I just heard Juliette Fay interviewed on LitNewEngland, and her new books sounds really good.

Miriam Downey said...

Good to hear from you. Have you got a blog?