Tall Poppies: Erin Celello’s “Learning to Stay” is Rare and Heart-Wrenching

There are books that touch your heart, books that make you squirm, books that make you think. Learning to Stay by Erin Celello did all of those.

Elise Sabato’s husband is a soldier deployed to Iraq. He’s sent home after being injured in an IED explosion. Though he looks “fine,” it becomes clear to Elise that he’s not the same man she sent off to war. Brad suffered a serious brain injury and post-traumatic stress, and now struggles with adjusting to “normal” life.

Elise is a driven lawyer and loving wife. But she’s human and Celello does a remarkable job bringing to life a character who wants to do all the right things and fumbles under the complexities of her new reality. Life is rarely neat and easy, and a book that touches on those ugly decisions – or lack of decisions as the case may be – is rare.

The depth of emotion that Celello brings to all of her characters is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming. As a reader, I found myself torn between sympathizing with Elise and wanting to shake her. Even when I cringed at how she reacted, her auctions and emotions were so genuine that it left me breathless. Every step of her journey made me question how I would react in a similar situation.

Celello’s writing is effortless and powerful. Learning to Stay is a book that deals with subjects that make many people uncomfortable. It’s a book I couldn’t put down and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it long after the last page.

Learning to Stay was published in 2013, and I’d like to think that a great deal of progress has been made in the quality of support veterans now receive. And while this book raised my awareness on those specific issues, it is, at its heart, a story about survival. The issues Elise struggles with – marriage, career, mourning what you had and lost and how to move forward – are ones that are relevant to almost everyone, and as relevant today.


Erin Celello is the author of Miracle Beach (Penguin/NAL 2011) and Learning To Stay (Penguin/NAL 2013). She has an MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University and is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, two young children, and two unruly Vizslas.

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