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TBTS Reviews: Carry the One

March 27, 2012

So Carmen was married, just. She sat under a huge butter moon, on a windless night in the summer of 1983, in front of the remains of some chicken cordon bleu. She looked toward the improvised dance floor where her very new husband was doing the Mexican hat dance with several other large men, three of them his brothers, other Sloans. Matt was a plodding hat-dancer; his kicks threw the others off the beat. In spite of this lack of aptitude, he was waving her over, beckoning her to join in. She waved back as though she thought he was just saying hi. She was hoping to sit out this early phase of her marriage, the mortifying dances segment.

“Don’t be discouraged. Everything will get better from here.”

Carry the One is being described as Carol Anshaw’s breakout novel. After years of laboring in the bottom end of the mid-list, Anshaw is finally being recognized on a larger scale, both critically and, one hopes, commercially. After reading Carry the One, I’m rooting for both of those things.

The novel itself is built around a deceptively simple story of three siblings – two sisters and a brother – under the long shadow of a tragedy. After the wedding of sister Carmen, several of the young, freewheeling guests pile into a car while far under the influence, and on a desolate country road at an ungodly hour strike and kill a 12-year-old girl, Casey Redman. The driver, the girlfriend of brother Nick, goes to prison and the other occupants of the car spend their lives haunted in other, less direct ways. The book’s main focus, younger sister Alice, comes out as a lesbian and embarks on a career as a painter. Her growing success is stalked by the death of Casey; she secretly – and brilliantly – paints Casey again and again, varying the theme in increasingly elaborate ways, producing the best work of her career and also the one thing she can never share. When it comes to story elements, Carry the One is just packed – love and lust, marriage and divorce, artistic growth and stagnation, addiction and sobriety. The siblings feel real and always reachable regardless of how high they climb or how low they sink. The novel tracks them from their young adulthood up into their forties, and while the tragedy recedes it never fully fades from their lives. Anshaw’s style is casual and easy, appearing effortless in the way that only great talent applied with years of hard labor produces. Never overwrought, never manipulative, Carry the One presents its subject matter with a hard-won level of comfort, as if its author spent years shaping it to fit. Anshaw’s descriptive powers are formidable and worthy of study by aspiring writers – if you’re working in long-form realistic fiction, you’d be well advised to pick up Carry the One and read it, then read it again. A word overused by many critics, including this one, applies perfectly to Carry the One: grace.

If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that Anshaw’s male characters are all kind of useless. There’s not a man worthy of admiration to be found in its pages. Nick, by far the best-realized of them, cannot shake his addictions long enough to get his life together. Carmen’s first husband Matt leaves her for the babysitter (the babysitter!), although Anshaw at least puts a unique spin on this trope, and second husband Rob is genial and largely decent but passive and confrontation-averse. Tom Ferris, another of the occupants of the car, becomes the kind of man easiest to describe with profanity, a grasping, self-important singer-songwriter who capitalizes on the tragedy with a hit song. But even with these complaints, it’s hard, even impossible, to argue that Anshaw is stereotyping – indeed, Anshaw is fairer to these men than many of the great male writers of the last century were in writing their women, and it’s not as if her women are saints.

Carry the One is a masterful work of character-driven fiction, highly recommended to anyone who values deep character development and literary style. Simon & Schuster, $25.00, hardcover.

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One Comment
  1. March 28, 2012 10:53 am

    mark, I am happy for the laurels you’ve heaped on my book, but I also wanted to praise YOU for such a lucid and well-written piece of criticism. it’s not an easy book to encapsulate, but you did an elegant job. thanks.

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