Sixteen-year-old Libby Winters lives in Paradise, a seaside town north of Boston that rarely lives up to its name. After the death of her mother, she lives with her father, Bent, in the middle apartment of their triple decker home—Bent’s two sisters, Lucy and Desiree, live on the top floor. A former soldier turned policeman, Bent often works nights, leaving Libby under her aunts’ care. Shuffling back and forth between apartments—and the wildly different natures of her family—has Libby wishing for nothing more than a home of her very own.
Quinn Ellis is at a crossroads. When her husband John, who has served two tours in Iraq, goes missing back at home, suffering from PTSD he refuses to address, Quinn finds herself living in the first-floor apartment of the Winters house. Bent had served as her husband’s former platoon leader, a man John refers to as his brother, and despite Bent’s efforts to make her feel welcome, Quinn has yet to unpack a single box.
For Libby, the new tenant downstairs is an unwelcome guest, another body filling up her already crowded house. But soon enough, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom, when Libby and Quinn stretch and redefine their definition of family and home.
With gorgeous prose and a cast of characters that feel wholly real and lovably flawed, This Is Home is a nuanced and moving novel of finding where we belong.
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Read an Excerpt
This Is Home
The year I turned ten, my father shot the aboveground pool in our backyard with his police-issued pistol.
I don’t remember it, but I hear about it all the time. My father likes to tell the story at the bowling alley bar, when all eyes are on him. There’s usually Wild Turkey over ice in the glass in front of him, or maybe a bottle of beer. Sometimes both. The story gaining speed with every sip. The guys egging him on, all of them off-duty cops, remembering the fall cookout in my backyard.
My mother in the kitchen with the other girlfriends and wives and the men outside in rusty lawn chairs watching my father scowl at the eyesore of a pool taking up space on his newly purchased property. Stagnant water the color of tree bark sat high against the rim, and the entire structure leaned off center, and someone called out: Jesus Christ, that thing’s a damn cesspool Tower of Pisa.
The scum-filled pool had come with the house, and my father hated it. None of the guys remember who first joked about pumping it full of bullets to empty the water, but they all remember my father standing up, taking two steps forward, and drawing his weapon.
They say he shot that gun as if he were a cowboy in an old Western film, quick draw and from the hip, firing until he ran out of bullets and the pool was a wheel of Swiss cheese, dirty water spurting from every hole.
The story always ended the same.
The telling of it might veer in different directions, but the ending always looped back to my father saying: Who was going to stop me? I’m in the biggest gang in town.
The year my father shot the pool, I got out of bed most nights at midnight to sit with him when he got off work. That was six years ago, and my mother always said I was too young to be up that late.
But my father never sent me back to bed. He’d drink a beer, eat a turkey sandwich. Lettuce, tomato, mayo. Potato chips smashed between the bread. His gun belt on the table between us.
My night owl, he’d say as I slid into the chair across from him. Just like me.
Back then, you could slice our family crosswise like a sandwich. My mother on one side: Olive skinned. Quiet and distant. My father and I: Fair skinned. Restless and temperamental.
Then half of that sandwich disappeared. Cancer took my mother away pound by pound and then breath by breath.
Then the medical bills piled up, and our house went up for sale.
We moved into the middle apartment in Aunt Lucy’s triple-decker after that. When we had no place to live.
Now it’s just me and Rooster Cogburn and my father, Bentley, who everyone calls Bent, even me, which suits him.
We got Rooster Cogburn from the shelter. He ended up there after the police were called to his house for a domestic dispute. Bent was the one who showed up and dealt with the mess and then brought him to the shelter. When months went by and no one wanted Rooster, Bent took him home because he was a guard dog if he had ever seen one.
The vet said she’d never seen a lazier dog, but Bent ignored her, and now we have a ninety-seven-pound mutt who never gets off the couch. He sleeps on his back, with his legs in the air, like he’s been shot.
He’s no guard dog either. I’ve heard him bark a handful of times, and even then it sounds like a bored half-yawn type of thing.
Rooster and I go for a walk a couple of times a day, and we make it half a block before he sits down and stares at me. Looks at the bag in my hand, full of his stinking poop, and eyes me again. Like, What? Deal’s done. Let’s go home.
Me and Bent and Rooster don’t live far away from anything.
If I lean out my bedroom window far enough, the tips of my fingers touch the dirty siding on the house next door.
Paradise is like that, though: everything stuffed in tight.
On the other side of town there’s a four-lane highway that runs straight through to the city. There are stores and houses and restaurants up and down both sides. Like the folks who first came here couldn’t decide if Paradise was a town or a city or an interstate, so they threw up their hands and made it all three.
Bent calls Paradise the groin of Boston. He used to call it the armpit, but then everyone argued with him and said, No, no, no, the armpit is Allston, which made sense because it’s tucked in close to Boston, and Paradise is farther out. Bent changed it to groin, and whenever he says it, folks get riled up, especially at the bowling alley with all the locals standing around. They’ll whip their heads around and mutter things like Whoa! or What did you just say? even though they heard exactly what he just said.
Me and Desiree just look at each other and shake our heads because it goes the same every time, and Desiree swears Bent says it just for the reaction.
Plus, it doesn’t make any sense because Paradise is north of Boston and out by the ocean, so technically if this town is a body part, and Boston’s the heart, then we’re something like the left eyebrow.
Maybe an earlobe.
Aunt Desiree lives in the apartment above us with Aunt Lucy, and even though they’re sisters, they look nothing alike. Mostly because Desiree is several shades darker than Lucy even in the dead of winter because she’s in the tanning booth twice a week. Desiree’s a former fitness model who bartends at the bowling alley.
She moved in last month after she broke up with her boyfriend. It was only temporary, she told me while I helped her carry boxes into the back bedroom. I didn’t mention that me and Bent living here was only supposed to be temporary too.
You have to be careful with Desiree—she has a way of taking things the wrong way. Not with me, because I keep my mouth shut about most things.
Bent and Lucy never do, though.
Just yesterday, Desiree said she was so hungry she could eat a horse and Bent said, “Well, what’s new?,” and Desiree put her hands on her hips and snapped, “Is that some sort of fat joke?”
I knew all he meant was that she’s always hungry because she never eats. Bent just shook his head and walked away. Which is pretty much his standard response when Desiree gives him her attitude.
I don’t blame him. Desiree has fingernails that could gouge your eyes out—bright red and long and sharp—and an edge to her that rubs people the wrong way. Nobody messes with her. Like ever.
Bent’s a policeman in Paradise, and even though he’s the worst bowler in the police league, he always gets a spot on the team. Desiree thinks it’s because he always buys the first round of beers, but I think it’s because he came up with the name Ball Breakers and had all the shirts made with last names printed on the back, and now they can’t kick him off without feeling bad about it.
Lucy’s the only woman on the team, and she always gives Bent a look when I tag along. The first night I showed up with him, she walked right up to us and pointed to the clock on the wall.
“Nine o’clock, Bent. She has school tomorrow. She should be home doing homework or taking a shower. Doing teenager things. Not sitting in a crappy bowling alley.”
“It’s not crappy in here,” Bent answered, sounding offended from the tone of his voice. “And stop overreacting. You know Lib’s not your typical teenager.”
“Well, maybe she wants to be,” Lucy snapped. “Did you ever think of that?”
“Well, maybe I want to be Cinderella,” Bent said, and went to the bar to order drinks for the team.
Lucy narrowed her eyes but let it drop. Probably because how do you argue with that kind of logic?
Bent Logic, me and Desiree call it.
The kind that makes no sense.
Lucy just put her arm around my shoulders and brought me over to the team, fussing over me and bringing me more snacks and water than I could consume in a week’s time.
For the most part, Lucy, Bent, and Desiree all get along, but living in a house together isn’t always easy, and even though they’re all adults in their thirties, they play their parts perfectly.
Lucy’s the bossy oldest, Bent’s the free-spirited middle child, and Desiree, the baby, doesn’t listen to a word either of them says.
In this case, though, with me showing up at the bowling alley on a school night, Bent wasn’t altogether wrong telling Lucy she was overreacting. I’m at the pediatrician every single time Lucy gets involved.
A small splinter is relayed to Bent as a tree limb wedged in my hand.
A low-grade fever means I’m on the verge of a seizure.
And forget about the time I tumbled in the waves at the beach and couldn’t figure out which way was up or down, so by the time I surfaced, I was gasping and blue lipped. We went straight to the emergency room for that because Lucy was convinced I was drowning from the leftover water in my lungs. She kept shaking my shoulders on the ride to the hospital, while Bent gritted his teeth and stared straight ahead, telling her to calm down every time she shouted Libby, stop closing your eyes! Don’t fall asleep because you WON’T WAKE UP.
That was the last straw for Bent. They got in a big fight over that when we got home, and Lucy said if Bent thought he could raise me better all by himself, then he should go ahead and do just that and she’d mind her own business.
Which really meant she took her extra toothbrush out of our bathroom, stomped upstairs, and then texted me: supper here when ur ready unless u want chef boy-r-d at ur place.
When Bent says I’m not your typical teenager, what he means is we’re not your typical family.
Bent keeps the craziest hours because he’s a cop and a workaholic. If he’s not working the night shift, he’s picking up a detail. Most nights, Lucy or Desiree sleep in the spare bedroom.
And now some creepy lady lives downstairs. She moved in a couple of days ago, but she hasn’t left the apartment yet.
Like at all. Well, that’s not true. I saw her leave in the middle of the night dressed all in black. Pants and a huge sweatshirt with the hood up, even though it’s a million degrees outside.
I’ve decided she’s a serial killer.
Which is what I’ve been explaining to Bent for the last ten minutes.
It’s Wednesday. The first one in August.
The heat is making Rooster Cogburn hang his tongue out and pant, even though he hasn’t moved since I took him out for a walk an hour ago.
Bent is still in his uniform, and there’s a crease in his forehead. He keeps looking over at his bedroom, and I know he’d rather be sleeping than listening to me. He’s just coming off a double, and he’s working a detail in six hours, so I have to talk to him before he goes to bed. He knows this, so he’s doing his best to stay awake and listen to me.
“You said we were going to move to a real house,” I tell him. “Just us. No people upstairs or downstairs.”
“Those people are your aunts. And they help me with you. I can’t be at work and home, Libby.”
“I don’t need anyone to stay with me. I’m almost seventeen. Besides, Lucy snores and Desiree turns on the blender for her protein shake before the sun’s even up.”
Bent clears this throat again and ignores me.
Rooster Cogburn rolls over onto his back, and suddenly there’s a dead smell in the air. On top of being the laziest dog in the universe, he’s also the smelliest.
“Now there’s a serial killer downstairs. She’s going to chop me up and take a bath in my blood.”
“What?” He gives me a look and eyes Rooster. “Get up, bud. Come on.” Bent nudges him with his toe and waves at the stench in the air between us.
Rooster sleeps straight through the nudging and the smell.
“It was on TV the other night. Some crazy Hungarian lady killed a hundred girls.”
“I told Desiree I don’t want you watching horror movies.”
“It was the History channel.”
I don’t mention that it was after midnight when I watched it on my laptop with headphones because Desiree was in the bedroom next door arguing with her ex-boyfriend.
Rooster’s sitting up now and rubbing his head against Bent’s leg, leaving a strip of gray fur on his uniform. I can tell by the way Bent’s jaw is jutting out that he’s had enough of this conversation, and when he snaps his fingers at Rooster to get him to stop getting hair all over the same pants he has to put back on in six hours, I know enough to shut up already.
Bent goes into his bedroom, and I hear him change out of his clothes, and then the bed squeaks.
Rooster Cogburn walks over to me and puts his head in my lap.
When we got Rooster from the shelter, he was a day away from dying. He was on the euthanize list until Bent heard about it and decided he could stay with us. It was supposed to be only until we found him a good home. That was more than a year ago.
“You hate it here too, don’t you?” I whisper to Rooster, but he only wags his tail so hard it bounces off the back door, thumping against the wood and making so much noise that Bent calls out that me and Rooster need to hush or leave if he’s ever going to get any sleep.
I want to call back to Bent that we should leave. And go back home.
But I don’t.
I just sit in the heat with Rooster’s big head in my lap, his stench filling the air around us, and don’t say a word because I know what Bent’s answer will be.
This is home.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for This Is Home includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lisa Duffy. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Sixteen-year-old Libby Winters lives in Paradise, a seaside town north of Boston that rarely lives up to its name. After the death of her mother, she lives with her father, Bent, in the middle apartment of their triple-decker house. Bent’s two sisters, Lucy and Desiree, live on the top floor. A former soldier turned policeman, Bent often works nights, leaving Libby in her aunts’ care. Shuffling back and forth between apartments—and the wildly different personalities of her family—has Libby wishing for nothing more than a home of her very own.
Quinn Ellis is at a crossroads. When her husband, John, who is back home after serving two tours in Iraq, goes missing, suffering from PTSD that he refuses to address, Quinn finds herself living in the first-floor apartment of the Winterses’ house. Bent had served as her husband’s former platoon leader—John refers to Bent as his brother—and, despite Bent’s efforts to make her feel welcome, Quinn has yet to unpack a single box.
For Libby, the new tenant downstairs is an unwelcome guest, another body filling up her already crowded house. But, soon enough, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom as Libby and Quinn grow a little more flexible and begin to redefine their understanding of family and home.
With gorgeous prose and a cast of characters who feel wholly real and lovably flawed, This Is Home is a nuanced and moving novel of finding where we belong.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. For the novel’s epigraph, Lisa Duffy chooses a quotation by the poet Muriel Rukeyser: “My lifetime / listens to yours.” Why do you think she picked this particular line to embody the novel? Discuss how you think it relates to the themes and characters of This Is Home.
2. The novel alternates between Libby and Quinn’s points of view in every chapter. Do you think this was an effective storytelling technique? Also, why do you think Libby’s chapters are narrated in the first-person point of view, while Quinn’s chapters are written in the third person? What overall effect did this have on your reading experience?
3. Libby begins her side of the story with a story about her father, Bent: “The year I turned ten, my father shot the aboveground pool in our backyard with his police-issued pistol” (3). Why do you think she begins with this particular anecdote? What does it tell us about both Libby and Bent?
4. Rooster Cogburn, the ninety-seven-pound shelter mutt, is just as much of a character in the story as his human counterparts. Discuss Rooster’s role in the story: How does he bring the characters together, and how does he stand as another symbol for family?
5. “Paradise is like that, though; everything stuffed in tight” (5). While Libby may be speaking literally of her town in this statement, consider the sentence with “paradise” taking a more figurative meaning. Do you agree? In what ways might the setting of This Is Home constitute a kind of paradise for its inhabitants?
6. This Is Home shows a wide range of different types of families: Libby, Bent, Desiree, and Lucy; Madeline, her twins, and Quinn; Quinn and John; Flynn and Jimmy; Madeline and Lucy. What defining traits do all of these families share? Discuss any other nontraditional families in the book that you can think of.
7. “And in my mind, I’d think, dying isn’t the only way someone disappears” (29). Consider this statement of Libby’s. What do you think she means? Do you agree?
8. From relationships between veterans and their wives to Desiree’s resisting a life as a mother, how do the characters in This Is Home respond to—and resist—traditional gender roles?
9. “I said John is a good soldier. Doesn’t mean he was a good husband” (132). Consider this statement of Bent’s. How do you think we change in the many different roles we embody in a lifetime? Discuss.
10. Compare Quinn’s attraction to Bent to Libby’s attraction to Jimmy. In what ways are they similar?
11. Photographs carry great sentimental value to the characters in This Is Home, especially Quinn. Why do you think photos are so impactful to her?
12. Jimmy reads some sections of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried aloud to Libby. Consider this particular passage: “You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self—your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil, you want to be a good man” (204). How might this passage relate to Bent, Jimmy, and John?
13. Why do you think it’s so important for Quinn for her to see the puppy that John gave away? What does her willingness to finally go look at him signal about her character development?
14. Consider the meaning of “home” as it relates to the novel. How does the meaning shift from character to character? Discuss how “home” can carry both positive and negative connotations for the characters of This Is Home.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider reading Lisa Duffy’s first novel, The Salt House, with your book club. Do you find any themes that are similar to those in This Is Home?
2. Tim O’Brien’s short story collection The Things They Carried is an important book for Jimmy. Consider reading with your book club; how might its stories of war remind you of the characters in This Is Home?
3. Visit the author’s website at LisaDuffyWriter.com to learn more about her and to read some of her short fiction, essays, and interviews.
4. What is your own definition of home? Consider making a photo album, scrapbook, collage, or other art project that shows your personal definition of home, and then sharing it with your book club.
A Conversation with Lisa Duffy
What inspired you to write This Is Home? How did you visualize the vivid and wide cast of characters?
The inspiration for this story wasn’t one specific thing. It was a couple of things that stuck with me over a period of time. I had read an article in the newspaper about a Massachusetts National Guard unit deploying to Iraq for a third tour. It spoke about the challenges of the multiple deployments from different perspectives—the soldiers going overseas and the spouses and children at home. Several years later, my daughter graduated from high school and some of her friends decided to join the service. Kids who had plenty of other options, but who wanted to serve. For me, the story began there, with a desire to explore the sacrifices and challenges of having to say goodbye to someone who is going to war, perhaps for long stretches of time.
As far as visualizing my characters, I tend to discover them as I write. Word by word, line by line. It’s never a process of visualizing the cast of characters first, and then writing. It’s finding them by writing the story.
Besides writing your own stories, you also help others write their own. What have you learned about yourself as a writer from your experiences teaching?
I’ve learned through teaching that writers typically have a brutal internal voice. One that can often silence that great sense of intuition that every writer has when it comes to crafting their own unique story. Teaching has taught me to be patient with my own process. To be kind with myself when I’m struggling. Sometimes the best thing I can do is to get up from my desk and just leave the story alone for a bit. Come back to it a day or two later with fresh eyes and a renewed hope for what’s on the page.
You live in the Boston area, where the novel takes place, and you render the area’s atmosphere so strongly and lovingly throughout the novel. Can you talk about why you chose coastal Massachusetts for the setting of This Is Home?
The novel is fiction, but I borrowed some pieces from my own life and went home to my roots for this book. I grew up in the middle apartment of a triple-decker twelve miles outside of Boston. My father was a policeman in town, and we had relatives living in the apartment below us for many years.
One of the things I love about people from this area is their allegiance to the town they grew up in. There’s always such a sense of pride, of identity and belonging. With an edge to it sometimes as well. A sort of “I can say anything I want about my hometown, but don’t you dare criticize” attitude. It doesn’t matter if the town is wealthy and idyllic or income diverse and crowded. Paradise, the fictional town in the novel, is both of these at the same time. Which is true of many towns in Massachusetts, both inland and up and down the coastline. It was true of where I grew up.
I tried to develop a tangible sense of place in the novel because I think most people feel strongly and deeply about where they come from. I think it’s true of how the characters in the novel feel about Paradise. I know it’s how I feel about my hometown. I guess this book is my best attempt at a love story to my childhood, my house, the old neighborhood.
In your guest post for She Reads, you mention that you went back to school for writing at age thirty-four. Can you talk more about that experience and what drove you to pursue your dreams?
I always wanted to be a writer. I attempted my first novel when I was nineteen. I got the chicken pox and had to stay inside for two weeks so I wrote every day. Then, about ninety pages in, I realized it was awful. I kept writing, but it was always something I did in my spare time. And even then, it was sporadic. Then suddenly I was thirty-four and my third child started preschool, and I sort of looked up from life and realized that I wasn’t ever going to be a writer in the sense that I wanted to be if I didn’t put my energy in that direction.
I had an unfinished bachelor’s degree, so I went back to school part-time. I took some creative writing classes and when I completed my BA, I was accepted into the MFA program as a fiction candidate.
My kids were school age by then and I was working, so the whole process took me about six years, from my first day on campus to my last, but I enjoyed it. It was a gift, really, to be in that learning environment. I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.
You are the founding editor of ROAR, a literary magazine supporting women in the arts. What inspired you to found ROAR? How has it helped you to connect the larger writing community—and, in turn, how do you think that has helped you?
ROAR magazine started in a publishing class at UMass Boston. I was working as a grad assistant, living an hour away from campus, raising my three children when I took the class. On a personal level, I was very aware of protecting my creative time while trying to balance the other roles in my life.
ROAR was a response to that. A desire to create a physical space where emerging women writers could publish their work. VIDA had just come out with their count, and the conversation about gender and publishing informed that decision.
The experience was really valuable within the context of the literary community as ROAR was really a team effort—a labor of love for our group of editors. It allowed me the opportunity to work with some extremely talented and inspiring people. We published four issues that we were very proud of, as well as an online component.
It was also enormously helpful to be on the other side of that table. I wasn’t a writer in that role but an editor working within a team of editors, having to accept or reject the work of other writers. I learned how subjective the selection process is and how editors really need to fall in love with a story to get behind it. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a story, it’s just not a good fit. That was helpful to keep in mind when I was sending out my own work and piling up a stack of rejections.
How do you deal with writer’s block? What drives you to keep going when you figuratively “hit a wall” while writing?
I try not to think of it as writer’s block. That’s such a negative phrase. Words are important, especially the ones we tell ourselves. So that’s not something that’s in my vocabulary. When I’m at a difficult point in the writing process—say, starting a new story, which is always tough for me—I try to just show up every day and see what I can do. It’s too easy to let the demons of the blank page get in your head. Part of the job is to accept all parts of the creative process. Some days I’m going to write easily, and other days I might need to do a little digging. The trick is to just keep going. Stay the course.
What are some of your favorite novels or authors? If you had to pick one that you think has inspired you the most, who or what would it be?
If I had to pick one, I’d say Anne Tyler. Breathing Lessons is a novel I’ve read over and over and I still go back to it to see how it’s put together, how it moves through time. Even as I’m writing this I’m thinking of a handful of favorites that I reference often. But in terms of a favorite author with a body of work that I cherish, absolutely Anne Tyler.
What do you like to do in your spare time other than writing?
I tend to be a homebody, so I’m fortunate that my home is my favorite place. We spend a lot of our spare time at home, with family and friends. My husband and I have six kids, from teenagers to adults. The older ones have spouses. We have a tidal river in the backyard, a gorgeous view. There’s always something going on. Boating and cookouts in the summer. Dinners and game nights. Everyone loves to cook and eat. We call it the last frontier because everyone brings their dogs and we have two labs, so it gets noisy and crowded and pretty chaotic, but we love it.
Are you working on anything now that you’d like to share with us?
I’m working on a novel set on an island off the coast of New England about people who are brought together after an accident leaves a young girl orphaned. It explores the concept of insiders and outsiders and how these labels are formed and perpetuated.
What do you most want readers to take away from This Is Home? What emotion do you hope lingers when they close the book?
I hope readers take away from it that they were happy to spend time with these characters and in this story. That’s the most I could ever hope for as an author.
And, of course, what does home mean to you?
Home to me is the place where I’m most comfortable in my own skin. Where I can just be, and that’s enough.