If you’ve ever driven while under the influence and managed to make it to your destination safely without wrapping your car around a tree, killing someone, or even “just” getting pulled over, then you can read this novel while breathing a sigh of relief.
“Carry the One” by Carol Anshaw taps into that raw nerve that resonates on a universal level for just about everyone – making poor choices in life yet walking away from them unscathed and feeling quite lucky. The characters in this modern day fictional work are however not as fortunate. “Carry the One” begins at a somewhat chaotic pace by introducing all of its characters within the very first few pages. Carmen and Matt, who barely know each other, decide to get married due to an unexpected “accident”. At their wedding reception, adult friends and relatives find nooks where they can engage in sex and where they allow teenagers to enter and watch. Limitless amounts of alcohol and drugs are consumed throughout the evening, and ultimately, the poor choice of getting behind the wheel while under the influence – and with a carload of passengers in varying degrees of intoxication – turns into an accident of a different kind that brought everyone to Carmen and Matt’s wedding. A child is killed.
As this cautionary tale progresses, the characters introduced early on are all somehow connected to the bride’s family — Carmen, her parents and adult siblings – whose members are well educated, civic minded, and successful. By all appearances, they are a normal, all American family. Yet Carmen’s father, Horace, is a detached, self-absorbed parent who resents the successes of his children that exceed that of his own. Loretta, Carmen’s mother, takes on the full-time job of dutiful wife but at the expense of nurturing her children. Carmen’s sister, Alice, who was one of the passengers in the car, is a painter who becomes obsessed with the image of the little girl killed. Alice depicts her in drawings as she imagines the girl growing into a young woman had she had the chance to survive the accident. These paintings become her most fulfilling, successful works and draw the ire of her father, a once successful artist himself. Alice is also a lesbian who is forever involved in non-committal relationships with women who will not come out due to their own family and societal pressures. Carmen and Alice’s brother, Nick, who was also one of the passengers in the car, is a gifted astronomer completing his Ph.D. yet unreliable to anyone or any endeavor. He struggles with staying grounded in a world surrounded by substances. And Carmen herself is guilt-ridden for allowing Olivia to drive on the night of her wedding knowing all too well that Olivia was in no condition to do so. Given these very real circumstances in this work of fiction, begs the question: is the notion of the All American family, let alone one that is considered “normal,” nothing more than a fairy tale.
The impact of the accident on everyone involved results in escapism. The cast of characters drift into spaces where they either isolate themselves from the accident’s emotional aftermath or immerse themselves in humanitarian efforts as a means of atoning for having wronged an innocent child. They are each however haunted by their choices made on the night of the accident, by the image of the girl in the moments before she was hit by the car, and of her lifeless body lying on the side of the road. As a result, the characters are forever connected by the tragedy as though it were the sum of a macabre calculation: “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.”
As a modern work of fiction, “Carry the One” functions as an anti-fairy tale. There is no hero to slay the thought demons obsessing over poor choices, or where a heart-broken woman dreams of meeting her prince but instead seeks another woman, or even where a child is saved from tragic circumstances. The novel however ends with yet another accident. This one however is of a coincidental nature and one that allows the space for at least Olivia, the driver who was convinced that she was the sole party responsible for the child’s death, to live happily ever after.