“Time is always a player” in the lives of three adult siblings touched by tragedy
Carry the One. By Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.
By Janice Harayda
You might expect a lot of drama in a novel in which the three main characters have the names of opera figures or variations on them. But Carry the One inverts the structure of the warhorses it invokes – Carmen, Nabucco and Lucia di Lammermoor. The dead bodies in those operas don’t arrive until the third or fourth act. A 10-year-old girl dies in the first chapter of Carry the One after being struck by a car full of stoned and drunken guests who have just attended wedding of Carmen Kenney at a farm near Chicago in 1983. That event turns out to be the high point of the dramatic action in a novel that for all its eloquence, has an unsteady forward momentum.
For the next 25 years the post-wedding tragedy will recur like a dark musical motif in the lives of the bride and her adult siblings, Alice and Nick. Each of the Kenneys faces a crisis with a perhaps unintentional operatic counterpart. As her namesake spurns a soldier for a toreador, Carmen finds herself betrayed by her unexciting husband. As Lucia longs for the lord of Ravenswood Castle, Alice pines for an absent lesbian lover. And as Nabucco goes mad, Nick suffers from a mind ravaged by drugs. All of this finds its theme in an idea central to Gounod’s Faust: the power of time to lift, add to, or reshape burdens. In affairs of the heart, a character says, “Time is always a player.” And “player” has a double meaning: Time affects destiny, and it plays with us.
Carl Anshaw develops her theme with wit and intelligence. She has the literary equivalent of a gift for bel canto, an operatic form marked in part by its elegance of phrasing and purity of tone. Carry the One abounds with writing layered with meaning, beginning in its first sentence: “So Carmen was married, just.” Does the “just” mean “recently,” “barely,” or “only”? The scene can support all of those meanings.
Appealing as it is, Anshaw’s bel canto writing style makes an imperfect vehicle for a story with grand opera undertones. Her plot unfolds over so many years that she can’t dramatize all of the changes her characters undergo and at times relies on flat exposition such as, “She knew Carmen tortured herself for letting them all leave the farm that night in a car running with just fog lamps.” She also distributes weight of her story over so many major and minor characters — with frequent jump cuts from one to the next — that none acquires a poignancy befitting its tragedies. And the self-absorption of the Kenney children’s parents tends to cloud the motives of the younger generation: You’re never sure whether the heavy shadow over their lives results from their upbringing or the fatal crash in the opening pages.
But you don’t to operas for plots that make sense in conventional terms. Would all of Seville really be falling at the feet of an overconfident barber like Figaro? Shouldn’t Lucia di Lammermoor know right away that the forged letter is a trick to keep her from marrying Enrico? And why can’t a smooth operator like Carmen keep herself out of trouble?
No, you go to operas for beautiful singing. And Carry the One has a through-line of it. When Carmen becomes a single parent, she finds that “she had lost her advantage against daily life”: “Weeks, whole months passed beneath her notice, or off to the side while she was on the game show of her life. She ran from pillar to post then on to the next pillar, ringing bells, pressing lighted buttons and buzzers, making wild stabs at answers to questions she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly, walking when she should be skipping, speaking when a song was expected. That show was called Single Parenthood.” Has any single parent not had moments like that? Carry the One has such descriptions on nearly every page. And that, in operatic terms, is beautiful singing.
Best line: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” “Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury …” “Gabe idolized his uncle. He saw Nick’s addictions enhanced by rock star lighting. Nick was his private Kurt Cobain.”
Worst line: “a tricky rotator cuff.” “So many tricky steps.” “some tricky bipolar disorder.” “success was going to be a little tricky.” “Incoming calls were tricky for the Lisowskis” Waiting for an annulment “was apparently a tricky business.” “Still, she left the tricky or cumbersome supply runs to Pim.”
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Carry the One appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 8, 2012.
Furthermore: Anshaw is a Chicago writer and painter who wrote Aquamarine and other books. She won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. The Metropolitan Opera site includes synopses of Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor and Nabucco.
Published: March 2012
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.