My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Accidents happen. Twists of Fate, bad judgment, lousy luck. Regardless of whether or not one believes in a higher power or karma or The Law Of Attraction, all can agree we are shaped by events, as individuals and as groups. The notion can be both terrifying and exhilarating. In the hands of Carol Anshaw, it is both, and it makes for a spellbinding read.
In brisk, economical prose, Anshaw drops us in among a group of urbane early 20-somethings, moments after a wedding in a Wisconsin farmhouse in 1983. All are in various states of inebriation, via drugs, alcohol, and/or lust. Anshaw – also a painter – conveys a lot with small brushstrokes. Cardinal traits that will define the characters over the course of the book are in full view; we meet the socially conscious bride unsure of her choice of husband, her genius drug enthusiast brother (in a dress) and his ne’er-do-well girlfriend (in a tux), her lesbian sister and her sister’s lover connecting furtively in a hot attic room, an aspiring musician and his trustafarian gal pal. All except the exhausted bride and groom pile into the ne’er-do-well tuxedoed girlfriend’s “cavernous Dodge” for rides back to motels, lodgings, etc, and, with only their fog lights on, they hit and kill a young girl. That’s on page 11.
What follows is twenty-five years or so in which this tragedy reverberates in the lives of these individuals as they become themselves. That may sound like a downer, but it’s not. While tragic, Anshaw’s characters – for the most part – are funny, inspiring and just complicated enough to free them of stereotype (i.e. “The Lefty Do-Gooder,” “The Druggie,” “The Flighty Artist.”) . It is thrilling to watch them kick against the friction of their lives – not just the accident, but the more ordinary mishaps like heartbreak, disappointment, humiliation. They are spirited and, to a person, sexy. There’s much erotic heat going on, and Anshaw is a master at this, somehow using just enough restraint to let one’s mind reel in the most pleasant of ways. Sadly, the really good sex seems mostly reserved for the women. But it is really good sex. In fact, guys in general do not fare so well under Anshaw’s gaze. But that’s a quibble.
Anshaw uses engaging, sharply realized characters – the dialogue sparkles – plus impressively rendered factoids about astronomy and painting, to delve into the different, often fascinating, ways people handle guilt, resentment, despair. Everyone chooses to atone – both consciously and unconsciously – for the accident, and the magic of the book is that while one begins the story being pissed off at these fuckups, as we get to know them and their hearts, we begin to forgive. And that feels good.