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Book review: “Aquamarine” by Carol Anshaw

A mother is thinking about her aimless 19-year-old son and how, as a child, he enjoyed putting on magic shows and drawing, in crayon, various inhabitants of his imagination, such as a man made of water.

And then somewhere along the way, he slipped from surprises into secrets, started becoming this elaborately unknowable person. Which makes [her] crazy. She sits quietly next to him and wants to tear him open and crawl inside, find out who the hell is in there.

Yet, isn’t each one of us “elaborately unknowable”? Even to ourselves.

That’s the reality at the heart of Aquamarine, Carol Anshaw’s first novel, published in 1992.

It is a short book of fewer than 200 pages. Yet, it is intensely rich and multi-faceted — in part, because of a surprising bit of literary legerdemain that Anshaw is able to pull off, and, even more, because she is like a bulldog. From the first pages, she grabs onto this issue of unknowable-ness and won’t let go.

A distraction

Consider her central character Jesse Austin.

The novel opens in October, 1968, in Mexico City where 17-year-old Jesse, a representative from the U.S., is about to swim the 100-meter freestyle for the Olympic gold medal. Her chief competition is an Australian, Marty Finch.

But, even as the swimmers take to their starting blocks, Jesse is distracted by the thought of the romantic tryst that, the night before, she shared with Marty. The starter’s pistol explodes. Jesse dives, a fraction of a moment late. The swimmers make their way up the pool and back again. She hits the wall with her hand — milliseconds late. Marty wins.

And then disappears from Jesse’s life. Returns to Australia. Never answers letter after letter that Jesse sends. Becomes an itch in the back of Jesse’s mind that she can never scratch.

Becomes a question: What was that about? And all the ancillary questions: Was the sex simply Marty’s way of gaining leverage against Jesse? Did Marty ever feel any affection for her? Did Marty trick Jesse at the starting block? Did Jesse lose on purpose in that aquamarine world of the final race of her career?

And how will Jesse live the rest of her life?

Folks next door

These are the questions still bedeviling Jesse when the novel picks her story up again in July, 1990.

I am perhaps making Aquamarine seem too much like a message-novel or a therapy-novel or a road-to-fulfillment novel. Far from it.

This is a book about people — vibrant, idiosyncratic, folks-next-door characters — who are making their individual and communal ways through the confusion that is life. You’ll recognize them.

Elaine, for instance, meets a friend at her pancake restaurant to plan a party, and, in the middle of their talk, the friend says “non-sequiturily” that “Anthony’s got himself in deep shit again.”

Carol Anshaw

Anshaw notes, however, that, “since all of [the woman’s] conversations with Elaine are really just installments of the same long, running conversation, there are really no non sequiturs, no antecedents left too far behind.” Sound familiar?

Or how about this? An ex-husband shows up at the house five years after walking away from the marriage and says to his former spouse, “Boy…You’re getting to look more and more like your mother.”

Or the woman who arrives home to her Manhattan walk-up apartment building: “The hallway of [the] building has a malevolent odor. She immediately worries that Mrs. Levine in the garden apartment — the oldest person [she] has ever seen outside of those yogurt ads — has finally expired, and everyone has been too busy or self-absorbed to notice.”

Or a first-time mother who is “nuts about the baby. She couldn’t have guessed this. She had no idea she had this particular set of feelings inside her. A lot of the time it’s as though she is drunk with love.”


“Drunk with love” — what a great way to describe that feeling that many, probably most, parents have felt when holding their newborn.

It’s also an example of Anshaw’s eye for telling detail. Which is to say detail that recognizes the often-overlooked parts of life.

For instance, two lovers walk through Greenwich Village. Kit is an actress on a TV soap opera, and she’s stopped “by a flurry of girls.” This gets her lover to thinking:

Boy, teenage girls these days sure look like hookers. Then she notices one of them negotiating with a guy in a delivery van and realizes these girls are hookers. They are also fans of Kit, and want her autograph.


Aquamarine is a novel about decisions, made and not made, and their ramifications down the years, and their ripples in the lives of many people. (Sort of like the movie It’s a Wonderful Life but without the rosy, cozy ending.)

Even when choices are made with great deliberation — and how many, really, are ever decided like that? — it all comes down to the firing of the starter’s pistol. An option is settled upon and — BAM! — you find yourself in the middle of the strong, heedless current of that choice.

As Jesse says:

When I look back it seems like there was this short little span of time right after Mexico when I had to make all the crucial decision in my life. Only I was way too young to do anything intelligent…

Most of what I did back then was just react, really….My mother wanted me to go to college. Take English and teach, like she did. So of course I couldn’t do that. She thought [Jesse’s boyfriend] Tom was “fly-by-night” and that clinched it. My path was clear.

Yet, in fact, Jesse could have just as easily reacted in a different manner. And, while the first few steps along a path may seem clear, who knows where you’ll be at step 106?

Or step 892? Or step 33,457?

Patrick T. Reardon

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