With accolades like rare, graceful and compulsively readable given by Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, all I could think of as I smoothed the first page open was that I looked forward to a good read in Carol Anshaw’s fourth novel, Carry the one.
Alas. I couldn’t wait to finish it, and not because I loved it, but because I had committed to reading it in whole before doing a book review. I did not enjoy most of this book.
The main characters are siblings Carmen, Alice and Nick, and a very long list of sub-characters, as the author tries to describe how one life ripples through this world impacting many others.
The one affirmation I heartily give Anshaw’s writing, starting with the very first sentence, is that she has an artistic way of using words as though they were light and shadow on canvas. Perhaps it’s because she is also a painter. I admire her being able to bend words and meanings like paint strokes, attempting to leave impressions behind in the reader’s mind. I would have enjoyed her style much more had I been allowed to reflect on those images; instead, the pace is fast and furious, the descriptions non-stop and needy, and I felt that much is lost because there is just too much of it.
Reading the first chapter felt like 20lbs of candy in a 2lb bag. What disappointed me was that such a great hook on page one—a brand new bride sits at her wedding feast, lazily picking at chicken cordon bleu and ignoring her groom’s beckoning to join him in a wedding dance—is immediately overwrought with so much detail that the plot shatters into too many sub plots. More didn’t make it better; more made it worse.
Less would have allowed the characters to be introduced to us in a meaningful, lingering way. It would have allowed the paint to dry on those spectacular verbal pictures Anshaw is so good at painting. Instead, I felt like the paint was never dry, and I could never just enjoy, because someone or something was always pressing me to move on. I was at a feast with future diners staring at me to hurry up and free up the table.
The amount of detail made it a bumpy ride. Perhaps that’s why it felt like reading a hundred novellas, instead of one book. Each sub plot could actually stand on its own as a novel.
Let me explain: In the first, short chapter, the reader is introduced to ten, yes ten of the book’s characters. You are also participating in a wedding, a long-time friendship, an extra-marital affair, insight into the in-laws on both sides, the pregnancy of the remorseful bride, eroticism, as bridesmaids slip away on a sexual encounter together, substance abuse as the brother, dressed in a gown, and his female date, dressed in a suit, host teenage wedding guests into a mushroom-induced drug trip, a detailed description of the farm and grounds turned wedding location, the unequally yoked pairing of the wedding couple, farewells and shooing off of tired guests, then, as if all the above weren’t enough to pack into a mere 11 pages, Anshaw quickly and bluntly describes the one flawed and fatal moment that really matters: A child is hit, smashes into a windshield, and is killed by an impaired driver.
That is the central thought of this novel, which changes lives forever. It is the one foundation of this story. Yet it is reduced to two paragraphs. That moment alone deserved more than the few words it was given. Anne Frank is the other example, and if you read the book, you’ll understand. The artist’s haunting paintings of the slain child deserved more page time, too, but it doesn’t happen. Wildly important things are given a few words, then left to flap in the wind.
Yet Anshaw makes a deliberate choice to use more ink on detailed sexual encounters, and a sprinkling of vulgarities, which simply did not add anything at all to the plot. Anshaw is short-sighted in her choice to only detail the sexual encounters between one of her main characters, Alice, and the variety of women she beds over a 25 year period. I was as put off by these deliberate inserts as I was by the random curse words that added nothing to the story—they were as non-essential as could be.
I did find some hope in Anshaw’s characters, and often reading about their flaws and talents, I found myself thinking these were people I knew, in life. Some human characteristics and truths are universal, I suppose, and Anshaw has the ability to capture them. I wanted more of that, and less detail about how they slept or what creamer they used.
Add to that the long list of topics covered, each important alone but overwhelming when lumped into one short book: Family, love, sex, lust, lesbianism, infidelity, drug and alcohol addiction, the death of a child, manslaughter, art, art dealing, musicians, social causes, fame, wealth and poverty, judgment and prison, domestic violence, genocide, September 11th, foreign adoption, politics, abortion, astronomy, illness, death, forgiveness, liberals and moralists, pro-life bashing , blended families, rehab, anorexia , living in foreign countries, dealing with unlikeable parents and unpredictable siblings, and children and mates. It’s exhausting.
Carry the one is a 253 page soft-cover novel packaged for the book club circuit, complete with a marketable cover, a graphic story, topics for questions and discussions, and pointers on how to enhance your book club experience. It speaks to a generation of readers who want to feel engaged, but want to keep things at arm’s length; they like fast-paced, tantalizing and politically correct. It is already a New York Times Bestseller.
But not an enjoyable read for me, with the exception of Anshaw’s deft turn of words and her glimpses into humanity.
In order to like this book, I would have to forget much of what I read between the covers.
Alicia C. Accardi
Closed the Cover