Willis’ first novel, published in 2000, opens with the beautifully ominous lines, We move each year in spring, like birds migrating, except we don’t go back to a familiar place. We never go back. We pack up who we are and the few things that cling to us, and drive away. We are good at packing. Good at leaving behind. The speaker is Tamara, an angry but insightful 15 year-old who is nursing old wounds as well as slowly coming to understand that larger sorrows are on the horizon. The book is set in 1954 and centers on Tamara’s hardly typical family: they are atheists but perhaps worse, nomadic, a four-person tribe compelled to follow Tamara’s 58 year-old painter father each year on his relentless hunt for new landscapes, new perspectives. Tamara is so used to this arriving/leaving routine that even in the opening pages, as she and her two younger siblings arrive at their new home for that year, she denies the possibility of excitement that newness could provide. Even as we drive up, I imagine us leaving…Entering a new house for the first time is like getting on a ride at the amusement park. The anticipation is always better. I imagine secret tunnels through closets, hidden rooms, forgotten diaries, maybe even a canopy bed with gauzy white lace just for me. I should know better by know.Tamara’s resentment at what she understands about her parents and the life they force her and her siblings to lead simmers and roils as the story’s real issue, her mother’s emerging illness and how it will effectively change their lives forever, takes shape. Some Things That Stay is a typical coming-of-age novel and although there are times that Tamara’s overly adult perceptions and formulations get in the way of the story’s power, the heart of the novel remains firmly located outside the sphere of mere melodrama and awakening sexuality.
The novel raises some very interesting queries about the different forms that love can take: between a man and a woman, between parents and their children, between God and both humanity and the individual, between the living and the dead and then takes that query a step further by allowing Tamara to sense and compare these differences and how they relate or will relate to her. Her tentative conclusions, tentative because Willis manages quite skillfully to make sure we understand that Tamara’s investigations are just beginning, are both heartbreaking and touching.