From One Fateful Night to a Lifetime of Regret: Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One
By the time the first chapter in Carol Anshaw's Carry The One is done, Carmen and Matt's wedding cake has been cut, and a small group of somewhat wasted stragglers have set out for the three o'clock AM drive back to Chicago -- when ten-year-old Casey Redman is thrown across the hood of the old Dodge, her face frozen in shock outside the windshield.
Bad things happen in life. Good things happen too, of course, but the way we respond to the bad things particularly make us who we are. This is a central theme of Anshaw's fourth novel, which describes the direct and indirect ways that people react to a stupid and preventable accident. Casey, a ghostly child in a pink and green plaid shirt, is the "one" who is carried in everyone's memory in this thoughtful story about guilt, redemption, and the nature of love.
The passengers in the car include Nick, Carmen's spacey astrophysicist brother; Alice, Carmen's artist sister, slinking off to spend the night with fellow bridesmaid Maude, her new lover; Tom, a pompous folksinger who is having an affair with Carmen's good friend; and Olivia, the driver, a mail carrier who thinks she does her job better when she is stoned. This is a dysfunctional ensemble à la Jonathan Franzen or Alison Bechdel, where narcissism is the glue that holds families together about as effectively as a used Post-It note. Only one relationship in the book lasts, and it isn't much of a model.
Whether you find these characters sympathetic or annoying might depend on your background, but the story holds up in either case. After all, we all carry our history with us. Alice, a painter, spends years working on a series of well-regarded portraits imagining who Casey would have been if she had lived. Nick spirals into addiction out of guilt that he could have prevented the tragedy, if only he had acted. We all know the feeling of "woulda-coulda-shoulda" -- if not about tragedy, then about the relationship choices we have made, and the ways that we accept or reject our mistakes.
Carry The One is ultimately a domestic drama, with a very talented writer taking on the emotional messiness of ordinary, flawed people. Whether she is describing Carmen visiting a steam bath with her Goth, anorexic stepdaughter or Nick on his way to the emergency room yet again ("Triage did not favor drunks and addicts"), Anshaw writes perceptively and sympathetically, with humor and patience. Our past is gone, she tells us, but never forgotten.