Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Review of "Carry the One" [30]

Carry the One: A Novel by Carol Anshaw
Simon and Schuster, ISBN 978-1451636888
March 6, 2012, 272 pages.

"I hate that it doesn't matter if we see each other. There's still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we're not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one."
It had been a happy occasion, the wedding of Carmen and Matt, and by the early morning hours when the five got in the car to drive back to Chicago, they are all intoxicated, with booze and lust and an assortment of drugs. No, they should never have been driving, especially Olivia, girlfriend of Carmen's brother Nick, who was behind the wheel. She never saw the young girl who wandered out into the road, and Olivia would pay the biggest price, years in prison for the accidental death.

But to some degree, they would all pay some price. Carmen felt guilty for letting them drive off, although she knew they were impaired. Her sister Alice, making out in the backseat with Maude (who by the way is her new brother-in-law's sister) was too totally absorbed in her new love/lust to see the girl before she hit the windshield and the third sibling, Nick, in his perpetual drug haze, didn't think the girl was real. So although he saw her standing there, he said nothing, he did nothing.
And yet, contrary to what some writeups about this book might lead you to think, the car accident is not really a large part of this story, rather just a shadow always lurking in the background. It rises on occasion to make the reader, and some of the characters, wonder if things would have been different if that night never happened, but it is never clear that it would actually be.

Perhaps Carmen pays the least price as the story progresses, skipping and jumping from her wedding in the early 80's, 25 years up to the day of the 2008 presidential election. We follow her through motherhood, the ups and downs of her career, her divorce, her second marriage..but the accident touches her mostly through her brother and sister, who were in the car. Alice, an artist who we will watch become a great success, over the years paints a series about the dead girl. She is dressed in the same madras plaid shirt and shorts she was wearing that night she was killed, in settings she may have found herself in if she had not died. But even thought these painting are Alice's best work, she will never let anyone see them. They are her guilty secret. But the majority of her story in the book is taken up by her on again/off again relationship with the sexually conflicted Maude. Although Maude was in the car as well, she seems a bit too caught up in herself and her budding modeling/acting career to be much affected by a stranger's death.
And then we have Nick, the brother who already had one foot in the drug world as the book begins and descends into total addiction, losing what was a very promising career as an astronomer. He feels guilty, and with some cause, but would his path have really been any different if that night had never happen? Somehow that big event, the accident that starts it all, is never proven to be all that critical.

This is a good book and I am sure many will like it. It has received some great reviews from the likes of the NY Times, NPR and USA Today. But look a bit further and you will find other reviews that are all over the place, many negative as well. For me, I liked it but I can't say that I loved it. Why is that?

Well, it is a beautifully written book, at times very clever. The dialogue, especially between the siblings, is spot on, very realistic and very believable. The authors ability to capture a moment, often with a very visual example, to describe it so perfectly that you could be there watching it, jumps out again and again. As with this time when Alice is going, yet once again, to help her brother, who she knows she will find in a terrible and sad condition...
"In order to keep liking Nick (as opposed to loving him, which was non-negotiable), Alice sometimes had to look at him obliquely, or with her eyes half closed, or through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Straight on would burn her retinas."
But, it is a largely character driven story, populated with characters that I did not find terribly likeable. For me, that is a problem.
Carmen, a social worker and political activist of a progressive flavor, seems to be put out there as the mature one, the responsible one. But she comes across as very judgmental, even rather angry. There is a scene near the end of the book where she opines that she is very sad and upset because she has realized that people will likely never change...that is change in the way she wants them to. Gosh, sorry Carmen, that we can not all be the people you want us to be, the country as you wish it were, the world formed to your ideals. Her attitude toward religion, Catholicism in particular, was nasty and offensive. No,I did not like her.

Then there is Alice, the character the author admits is most like herself, and seemingly the one we are suppose to be most sympathetic toward. Her attempts to maintain a relationship with a father jealous over her success and an indifferent mother seems like a fine thing and the glimpse into her art world is interesting. Yet, I must say, the year after of year of being with Maude, being left by Maude, being overcome with her desire for Maude, being again with Maude...being again left by Maude..all becomes a bit tiring.

And finally we have Nick, a character that again the author says is at least in small part based on her own brother. Over the years of the story, he in and out of rehab, brief periods of successful work, longer and longer periods of sinking deeper and deeper into his little drug world. Oddly, he ended up being the person I liked the best..which might not be the best sign.

I did like the ending. For once, things seemed, maybe, on the upswing for Alice, and the scene where Gabe, Carmen's grown son, sees her, with her sign and her protest 'uniform', on the train platform as he is going home, is excellent, maybe my favorite in the book. And at the very end, 25 years after the accident, we again meet up with Olivia, the driver that night. She rebuilt her life after prison..and a brief marriage to Nick...and is working rather successfully as a hair dresser, changed her name so she can't be Googled, reinvented herself to find some peace. We follow her as she leave the salon after closing one night..well, as the author said in an interview, if you have a question about what it means, re-read the last page more slowly.

Pretty much, things end up as you may well expect and don't race to the end of the book, hoping for some great event, some revelation, to take place. It's not that sort of book.
Recommended, with some reservations, for readers who enjoy character driven books.


  1. I've read elsewhere that the characters are pretty unlikeable in this book. I've got to have at least one I really like!

  2. This is one I'm very curious about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. If I were you I would read it and I am glad I did. Hey, I liked it enough to finish it and review it, which for me these days, says something positive.

  3. What a fine review. It really gave a sense of what was going on and made me stop and think whether I want to read or attempt to read this one or not. I'm still on the fence. Perhaps. You did a good job with this one, Caite!

  4. I can like a book if I don't like the characters but I need plot, so I may not love this one either. I have a feeling I'd like it though.

    1. with little plot and no one to like, there is an issue of where to hang your hat.

  5. I do like character-driven books … so I think I might have to check this one out.

  6. I love character driven novels. Hoping to listen to this one at some point. Have a great weekend Caite.


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