Book review: “Carry the One” by Carol Anshaw

Here’s what I hate. 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.

Alice is talking with her sister Carmen about a folksinger they know named Tom. He is fatuous and self-centered, and they don’t really like him. But, because of a car crash in 1983, they don’t have a choice.

It was in rural Wisconsin, on the day that an already pregnant Carmen married Matt. It was sometime after midnight; everyone was worn out from a day of revelry. Crowding into the last car to leave were five of the guests — Nick (the brother of Carmen and Alice), his girlfriend Olivia, Tom, Alice and her new lover Maude (the sister of Matt).

Nick and Olivia, who was driving, were high. As the car drove away, Carmen noticed that its headlights weren’t on.

“Hey,” she shouted. “Your lights!”

When the car disappeared from view, Matt said, “She’ll figure it out eventually.”

A few minutes later, the car was flipped on its side, and a 10-year-old girl was dead.

The linkages of life

Carol Anshaw’s deeply felt, well-observed novel Carry the One, published early this year, is set mainly on the North Side of Chicago and spans a quarter century. Its subject: the linkages of life — some wispy, some jagged, some slippery, some “non-negotiable.”

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.

Nick is an addict, riding a cycle of addlement and sobriety, but with the sober periods shrinking smaller and smaller as life goes on. Alice, a painter like their father, is fairly sensible except when it comes to her on-again, off-again, off-again, off-again, on-again affair with Maude. She’s “deft at longing.” Carmen is an earnest do-gooder.

[Alice] both envied and pitied Carmen — traveling always on firm, flat ground, breathing in the fresh gusting air of reality. Power walking through life.

Even more than the 1983 crash, it is the relationship of these three siblings, the children of self-obsessed parents, that is the core of Carry the One.

Answering questions

What is life? What is love? For Carmen, Alice and Nick, the answers to those questions are found, probably most deeply, in each other.

You can’t choose your siblings, but, as an adult, you can choose to have nothing to do with them.

These three Kenneys opt to keep their childhood connection, to strengthen it, to build it, not to let go. To put up with their differences, to anchor each other, not to look away from the tragedy of Nick’s downward seepage or of the 1983 collision.

Like their love for each other, the death of the girl in that collision is something “non-negotiable,” linking them and the others in shared guilt, sorrow and shock.

Some handle it poorly; some with fortitude; all of them with some measure of pain.

Tom writes a song about it to resurrect his career. The dead girl is an inspiration to Alice to create her best work. Nick is impelled to face the girl’s family.

The crash colors their lives, as if each had lost a finger in an industrial accident.


Near the end of this strong novel, Anshaw’s best since Aquamarine, Alice is in her loft when Diane, her new lover, comes over with Ed, “a short black dog her neighbor found in a garbage can.”

Things with Diane are going well, maybe too well, but Alice allows herself to hope.

Ed the dog was high on his new life outside the trashcan. Set loose in Alice’s loft, he immediately disappeared into the shadows of her studio. Now he reappeared and was trying to work up some speed despite his shortness of leg. He ran in a rocking horse canter across the vast old wood floor of the loft, put on the brakes as he skidded to a stop in front of Alice and Diane, then looked up at them, super-ready for whatever came next. The usual fog hanging over Alice’s future lifted a bit.

In a way, Ed is a mascot for this novel.

None of Anshaw’s characters is “super-ready” for life, and often they’re not even ready.

But Ed knows — and they know — that life is going to happen either way. And it’s better if you share it.

Patrick T. Reardon

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