Hope can be a strange and fickle thing. Some days it’s hard to come by, and other days, it shows up unannounced, poised to change our lives.
That’s certainly true for characters Nova Huston and Mason Shaylor in local author Jessica Strawser’s latest novel, The Next Thing You Know, which was released March 22 through St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Grounded in current-day Cincinnati and moving seamlessly between the past and the present, Strawser’s latest work explores the power of human connection and the promise of hope against the odds.
The contemporary work of fiction — Strawser’s fifth novel — centers on the relationship between Nova, an end-of-life doula with a free spirit and deep well of compassion, and Mason, a gifted Indie singer-songwriter whose rising stardom has been cut short due to a debilitating medical condition. Their paths cross when Mason seeks guidance from Parting Your Way, a holistic practice that helps terminally ill patients find peace with their fate. Mason seems to possess more skepticism than faith in the practice, but then he begins to work with Nova, who quietly battles her own challenges, and hope shows up in its unexpected way.
The Next Thing You Know weaves an emotional human drama with romance and touches of mystery (along with plenty of nods to Cincinnati life). St. Martin’s likens the story to “Me Before You meets A Star is Born.”
Through the character of Nova, Strawser references a career (or calling) that’s been on the rise since the early aughts: the end-of-life doula, a role that evolved from the hospice movement of the 1960s. Strawser had been researching for a different story when she learned about the practice.
“I stumbled on the existence of end-of-life doulas and was so interested,” she tells CityBeat. “I thought it must take a really special person to do that job, someone who has really personal reasons for wanting to do that job. And I also thought such a person might easily be misunderstood, which, to me, had the makings of a great protagonist.”
Strawser describes the nature of end-of-life doulas within the first few pages of The Next Thing You Know. In the first chapter, Mason arrives at Parting Your Way to learn more about their services. Nova’s business partner explains to him that end-of-life doulas help clients achieve “peace of mind as end of life nears,” both emotionally and with the logistics, “so you may be as fully present as possible for your loved one’s remaining days.”
Strawser says she sourced information and insights from Doulagivers — an online, end-of-life doula training program — and Ask a Death Doula, a weekly podcast that chronicles the “death doula movement” through interviews with leaders, patients, families and death doulas around the world.
“If you mention (end-of-life doulas) to other people, I think their initial reaction is that it sounds really sad, that it’s a sad thing to do,” Strawser says. “But actually, they’re so hopeful. It’s really all about finding peace and purpose. Everything that I learned about them had so much positivity.”
In The Next Thing You Know, Nova isn’t based on anyone specific, but she represents Strawser’s imaginings of what a character in such a role might be like.
“To be an end-of-life doula, I think you have to have personal reasons, and (Nova is) very private about her reasons for doing what she does,” Strawser says. “I think a lot of people think they have her number and that she’s this free spirit. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they don’t know the whole story at all. And that’s OK with her; she doesn’t want anybody to know the whole story. For her, I think Mason is her most challenging client for a lot of reasons, but a big reason is that, to help him, she has to share what she has been through.”
Mason, like Nova, keeps a tight lock on the details of his life. But as she guides him along a path toward inner peace, their personal stories unfold, making room for unmistakable moments of connection and, most profoundly, hope.
The Next Thing You Know has been met with early critical praise from Publishers Weekly, which called the story “impossibly beautiful.” The publication says, “The author skillfully keeps the plot twists coming, leading to a bittersweet yet ultimately comforting finale. Strawser sensitively handles the grief and pain that surrounds a death, and buoys this with a strong cast of supporting characters.”
Strawser’s previous novels include A Million Reasons Why, Forget You Know Me, Not That I Could Tell and Almost Missed You, all published by St. Martin’s Press. Almost Missed You was named to Barnes & Noble’s “Best New Fiction” shortlist, and Not That I Could Tell was a March 2018 Book of the Month selection. A Million Reasons Why was recently released in paperback and includes a book-club discussion guide.
Signed copies of both A Million Reasons Why and The Next Thing You Know are available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Commons. The bookstore, located at 2692 Madison Road, will celebrate the latest novel’s launch with an in-person discussion, book signing and specialized Brontë Bistro menu at 7 p.m. on March 22.
In addition to her fiction writing, Strawser serves as editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest and has written for The New York Times’ “Modern Love” series, Publishers Weekly and others. In 2019, she was the writer-in-residence at the Cincinnati Public Library. During her tenure, she met with book clubs at library branches all over the city, engaged with local and emerging writers and participated in various literary events around Cincinnati. She says she hopes the publication of The Next Thing You Know will elicit more connections and interactions with the local community — something she sorely missed after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m really looking forward to getting back into the community and seeing readers face-to-face again,” Strawser says. “In 2019, I was very locally involved and it was great. I loved it. Then everything ground to a halt in 2020. It was a little disorienting and disconnecting, but over the last several months I’ve been meeting with book clubs again, and I look forward to some library appearances down the road. I’m really grateful for all the support from local readers, and I’m looking forward to getting back to that aspect of things.”
In-person and virtual book tour events for The Next Thing You Know take place through September, with events being added on a rolling basis. The book is available in hardcover, ebook or audiobook through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Bookshop, Indiebound, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Penguin Bookshop.
Discover additional events for The Next Thing You Know and more about Strawser at jessicastrawser.com.
Stay connected with CityBeat. Subscribe to our newsletters, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google News, Apple News and Reddit.
Send CityBeat a news or story tip or submit a calendar event.