The New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2012 came out the first week of December, and Carol Anshaw’s fourth novel, Carry the One, took its place deservedly on the list. It would be quite the feat to read them all (especially since, inevitably, more wonderful books will inundate us in 2013), but this gem should not be missed.
The book focuses primarily on three siblings: Alice, Carmen, and Nick. The first section takes the reader to Carmen’s wedding to Matt, which is held on a bohemian-esque farm in Wisconsin in the summer of 1983. These characters have a special bond, but it is about to become one tethered by a horrible accident/secret, which is hinted at from the get-go. Free-spirited artist Alice has a torrid, drugged-out fling with the groom’s sister Maude (a relationship that will haunt her throughout the novel); more conservative Carmen tries to be the perfect sister and hostess she has become accustomed to playing; and the youngest, sweet Nick, is spending the wedding with his girlfriend Olivia, who also is a bit tripped out, a state that she shall come to regret.
On the way home from the wedding, at a very dark 3 a.m., Nick, Maude, Alice, the sisters’ friend Jean, and her folk singer companion, Tom, are all passengers in Nick’s drugged-out girlfriend Olivia’s old Dodge, and Olivia has not turned on the lights yet as she leaves the farm and encounters the country road. The car strikes a 10-year-old girl who emerges out of nowhere onto the darkened road where no one would expect her at that hour, lights on or not. The passengers are all different degrees of banged up, but the girl dies soon after. Olivia will spend several years in prison; the rest continue their lives bearing different kinds of physically invisible scars. The night has branded them as survivors of a tragedy, and most of them spend years not being able to escape a club of which they never wanted to be members. Olivia physically goes to prison, but they all (well, save for the insensitive friend Tom) “do time” in their own way. Even though Carmen was not involved in the accident at all, she holds herself accountable because it happened at her wedding and she let them drive home. She has anointed herself the conscience of the family and that doesn’t do her any favors in the happiness department.
Anshaw’s talent in the way she spins prose is how she captures people and describes settings. As a reader, you’ll find yourself bemused and impressed with the way she paints a scene, for she does not throw away words on the page. For example, in describing the weather on Carmen’s wedding day, she writes: “A small threat of rain was held to a smudge at the horizon.” In capturing and describing old female relatives who are in attendance at the wedding, she notes that they are “clutching their Instamatics, tears already pooling in the corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride.”
The whole novel is peppered with artistic influence, which is fitting, as Alice is an artist, as is her father. Alice, Carmen, and Nick have a tumultuous relationship with their father, an artist of some acclaim who possesses few parenting skills. Their mother has always deferred to her artistic husband’s whims, obviously to the determent of her children. When Alice becomes a well-known artist herself, her father, fading into obscurity by that time, tries to ride her coattails without feeling an ounce of embarrassment. This is quite the family. Anshaw has either studied art or is an extreme aficionado on the sidelines of the art scene, because she nails the artistic language and world in this novel.
Also impressive is the way Anshaw crafts a picture of Nick’s world. The affable, handsome, baby boy of the family is a brilliant astronomy professor hopelessly living the unrest of a drug addict through his life and career. Anshaw has painstakingly researched that world too, and it’s fascinating and heartbreaking to witness such promise and genius when you know it’s doomed. Alice and Carmen always want to save their little brother, but even they get to the point where they know it is fruitless and they have to let him go, but nothing is easily let go in this novel, hence the title, Carry the One. All of them have this “one” that hovers over their lives that they must always add into the equation, making the mathematical calculation referred to in the title.
The novel is primarily set in Chicago, but sojourns to Paris and Amsterdam with Alice, following her art career. It spans a length of time stretching from the wedding in 1983 to the early 2000s, including a poignant connection with 9/11. Anshaw is a smart writer and is able to effortlessly entwine historic events and trends throughout the course of the novel, including having Carmen organize “take back the night” rallies. She is also smart enough to offer up some humor in this study of the human condition, because all of us can relate to humor, even when it must arise from uncomfortable moments. And there are plenty of those. But it is so well balanced with brilliant prose, history, and honesty that it isn’t all about the darkness.