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How to Be Lost

How to Be Lost

3.8 42
by Amanda Eyre Ward

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Joseph and Isabelle Winters seem to have it all: a grand home in Holt, New York, a trio of radiant daughters, and a sense that they are safe in their affluent corner of America. But when five-year-old Ellie disappears, the fault lines within the family are exposed: Joseph, once a successful businessman, succumbs to his demons; Isabelle retreats into


Joseph and Isabelle Winters seem to have it all: a grand home in Holt, New York, a trio of radiant daughters, and a sense that they are safe in their affluent corner of America. But when five-year-old Ellie disappears, the fault lines within the family are exposed: Joseph, once a successful businessman, succumbs to his demons; Isabelle retreats into memories of her debutante days in Savannah; and Ellie’s bereft sisters grow apart–Madeline reluctantly stays home, while Caroline runs away.

Fifteen years later, Caroline, now a New Orleans cocktail waitress, sees a photograph of a woman in a magazine. Convinced that it is Ellie all grown up, Caroline embarks on a search for her missing sister. Armed with copies of the photo, an amateur detective guide, and a cooler of Dixie beer, Caroline travels through the New Mexico desert, the mountains of Colorado, and the smoky underworld of Montana, determined to salvage her broken family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of those sink-your-teeth-into-it novels that remind you why you love to read.”
–The Charlotte Observer

“Invites comparison to The Lovely Bones . . . Ward’s depiction of family, with its attendant love and guilt, will keep you turning pages.”

“A compelling page-turner [that] unfolds as part suspense novel, part memoir . . . [How to Be Lost] chronicles Caroline’s tale with vivid eloquence, clarity, and dark, nuanced humor.”
–The Boston Globe

“The narrative is so engrossing, so propelling, you’re surprised to come upon the last page.”
–Time Out New York

“Affecting . . . sustains suspense to the very end and brings a tear to the eye.”
–The Denver Post

Publishers Weekly
Ward (Sleep Toward Heaven) tracks a young woman's search for her missing sister and herself with economy and compassion in this believable and moving tale of hope's ability to best the most unforgiving of sorrows. As a teenager, Caroline enlists her younger sisters to run away to New Orleans from the suburbs of New York, far from their angry, alcoholic father and sad, tipsy mother. Striking in its innocence and urgency (the girls decide to steal the family's Oldsmobile; they buy sunscreen and trail mix), the attempt derails when Caroline's youngest sister, Ellie, disappears from school on the day the girls had planned to run away. The aftershocks of Ellie's disappearance are magnified by family secrets, which Ward deftly reveals in seemingly unrelated stories (not narrated by Caroline). Now a hard-drinking New Orleans cocktail waitress a long way from creating a family of her own, Caroline determines to bring together her mother and her sisters. Readers, knowing more than their narrator, will feel the tension rise as Caroline travels cross-country to find Ellie, dead or alive, once and for all. An emotional journey as much as a physical one, the quest helps Caroline grow up, and gives Ward a perfect vehicle to explore how belief can be as important as truth. Agent, Michelle Tessler at Carlisle & Company. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An obsession with, or desire to forget, a long-missing child keeps a family trapped like flies in amber. It's the stuff of tabloid TV or heartbreaking features in the weekend paper, but the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a young girl from a picture-perfect suburban family can still make for good fiction. Here, Ward (Sleep Toward Heaven, 2003) presents us with the Winters family (never mind the slightly melodramatic name), a messed-up bundle of upstate New York Wasps who have never quite recovered from the day when the youngest of three daughters, five-year-old Ellie, went missing after school and was never heard from again. Both of her sisters, repressed Madeline with her Wall Street broker husband, and self-consciously slumming Caroline-once a pianist with a gold pass to Juilliard and now a dozy cocktail waitress at a revolving bar in New Orleans-blame themselves for what happened. The mother, widowed now after despair, anger, and drink took her husband, lives alone with her odd rituals and fanatic questing, 15 years later, still to find her Ellie. Most of the story is observed by Caroline, a noncommittal walking zombie and not the most thrilling of hosts through this emotionally frozen world. Things slide downhill even more when she insists on taking up her mother's search by going to Montana in search of a girl in a magazine photo whom the two of them are convinced is Ellie. Not surprisingly, things don't turn out as planned, but not far from the end Ward turns the tables, bringing together two other seemingly unrelated narrative strands into a walloping knockout of a finisher that would seem like a cheap trick if it weren't so thrilling. The author plays a smooth game, notshowing her hand until the absolute right time, just when you were about to give up on a seemingly hopeless case. A voyage of discovery cloaked in suburban ennui: engaging and hard to let go.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


The afternoon before, I planned how I would tell her. I would begin with my age and maturity, allude to a new lover, and finish with a bouquet of promises: grandchildren, handwritten letters, boxes from Tiffany sent in time to beat the rush. I sat in my apartment drinking Scotch and planning the words. “Mom,” I said to Georgette, the cat. “Mom, I have something important to discuss.”

Georgette stretched lazily on the balcony. Below, an ambulance wailed. A man with a shopping cart stood underneath my apartment building, eating chicken wings and whistling. The heat had dimmed, but the smell of New Orleans seemed to grow stronger: old meat, sweat, and beer.

“Mom,” I told the cat, “please listen to what I am telling you.” Although Georgette continued to ignore me, the man with the shopping cart looked up, and I took this as a good sign.

I had to work that night, so after the Scotch and a small nap, I stood in front of the mirror and put on mascara. I was going for sultry European, so I took my hair in my fingers and twisted it, securing the roll with bobby pins. Was this a chignon? How did one pronounce chignon? In any case, my hair was out of my face, and this would please the health department. I washed my hands with the rose-scented soap my sister had sent me, and slipped my feet into heels. As a final gesture, I drew a mole next to the left corner of my mouth.

We had been told, at The Highball, to “glamorize our images.” This is a direct quote. Jimbo, the club’s elderly owner, had begun soliciting buyers for his “little piece of New Orleans history.” The Highball was the cocktail lounge at the top of the World Trade Center in New Orleans. It revolved. If you sat drinking expensive themed cocktails for a full hour, you would see the whole city, from the lazy Mississippi River to the dilapidated downtown, to the French Quarter, and back again to the mighty Miss, Old Man River.

Jimbo had implored us, in his memo, to glamorize. I believe he thought that despite the old plush décor, despite our advancing ages (I was thirty-two, in a town where many cocktail waitresses were underage runaways) and annoyed demeanors, if we tarted up, he could convince some Yankee that The Highball was an exclusive club, and not a tourist trap that revolved. So, why not? My old look (irritable and overtired) hadn’t gotten me many dates. Along with Winnie, I went to Payless Shoes and bought a few pairs of high heels. We bought fishnet stockings and perfume. And then we went to Bobby’s Bar and drank beer from giant cans until we ran out of quarters for the jukebox.

I drove slowly to The Highball. With my car windows closed and my air-conditioning on, the night was lovely. People sat on their front steps drinking from paper bags and watching kids play soccer. I was one of the few white people in my neighborhood, and one of the many heavy drinkers. I waved to Lady B, my landlord, who was sitting on her porch swing and braiding her daughter Lela’s hair. Lady B winked in response.

Although I didn’t have to, I drove up Canal Street, past Harrah’s. Three frat boys, their necks strung with beads, sat on the sidewalk outside the casino. Their eyes were glazed, and they were not drinking from their giant daiquiris. They were simply staring at the street, defeated. These were the sorts of people who eventually roused themselves to ride the elevator to The Highball. More than one of my customers had fallen asleep in their velvet chair.

Things were slow up at The H-ball. Winnie was leaning on the bar, her tight dress leaving no inch to the imagination. Behind the bar, Peggy the yoga queen mixed a martini like Tom Cruise, shaking her hips this way and that. A few customers gazed out the window. One couple was making out madly. The good thing about a revolving bar is that odious customers are soon out of sight.

“Look at you!” said Winnie, pointing red fingernails and laughing throatily.

“What?” I said. “It’s a chignon.”

Winnie and Peggy looked at each other. Sometimes, I surprised them.

It was a long night, and everybody wanted bourbon. When my shift was over, even I wanted bourbon, instead of my usual Scotch. Peggy poured me a stiff one. “I am dreading tomorrow,” I told her.


“I have to tell my mother I’m not coming home for Christmas. She’s going to flip.”

Peggy sat down on her stool. She had removed every bit of her eyebrows, and drawn thin lines. “Why not?” she said.


“Why aren’t you going home?” said Peggy. She poured herself a glass of bourbon.

“Oh, it’s a long story,” I said. “For one thing, I’m an adult, you know? I can’t go flying home to New York for every holiday like I’m in college or something.”

“I never went to college,” Peggy said, dreamily.

“And my family…well, it’s a bit fucked up, is the thing,” I said.

“I wonder,” said Peggy.


Peggy sipped her drink, and looked through the enormous windows at the sparkling city below. “I wonder who I would be,” she said, “if I had gone to college.”

“I went to college,” I said, “and I’m still here.”

Peggy nodded. “But you’re you,” she said.

On the drive home, I fantasized about my Christmas alone. I would buy a little tree for my apartment and decorate it with lights. I could spend the day at the movies, or at the Napoleon House, eating a muffaleta sandwich and then slowly drinking my way through a bottle of house red. Winnie had already invited me over for turkey, and I could watch all the kids at her house open presents. Or I could work on Christmas, and make a bundle. Jimbo paid double on holidays.

I wouldn’t have to hear it from my sister Madeline and her investment banker husband, Ron. And the Christmas party. My mother insisted on keeping up the Christmas party tradition, making us don taffeta dresses, hiring the bartender from the Liquor Barn. She made the same meatballs, a little too sweet, and the cheese ball. The cheese ball! There must have been a time when an enormous mass of orange and pink cheese covered with nuts and parsley was fashionable, and my mother has not moved past that time. My mother, who was a model in the sixties, who loved fondue, who made cheese balls and laughed so brightly it made me want to cry.

Last year, I wore the costume and deflected questions about my career. (“Just tell them you’re still playing,” my mother had said, “I beg of you.”) I drank too much wine, listened to my brother-in-law’s investment advice, and did not argue with Madeline.

I went to sleep before making a scene, but in the middle of the night, I woke up. The guests were gone, and the condo was silent. Next to me, my sister breathed slowly. Strands of hair clung to her flushed cheeks, and she smelled of face cream. I looked at her, the curve of her nose, her thin lips. Her eyelashes, clean of mascara, were pale, and her skin was lightly freckled. In many ways, she was a stranger to me now: an Upper East Side wife, nervous and easily wounded. And yet, in the glow of the streetlamp outside the bedroom, she was the same girl who had once told me You and me are our family, her eyes searching mine for a promise. I touched her cheek with my fingers, and she stirred, furrowed her brow, but did not wake.

Our room was on the third floor of my mother’s condo, and I went downstairs, past my mother’s bedroom and the den, where Ron slept on the pullout couch. (For the first year of their marriage, Madeline had slept with him on the uncomfortable couch at Christmastime, but now she came upstairs to sleep next to me.) I had hoped to find some leftover meatballs, or to make a ham sandwich with the Harrington’s maple ham and the little slices of rye bread. I made my way to the kitchen, but as I stepped carefully to avoid waking Ron, I heard something.

I turned toward the sound, and closed my eyes. It was muffled, a sort of breathing. For a moment, I felt a wave of fear, thinking it was a prowler, a robber, murderer, or rapist, but then I remembered I was in suburban New York, and not New Orleans, and my mother’s condo complex had a guardhouse. I was wearing wool socks and my Christmas nightgown.

My eyes adjusted to the light. In the kitchen, by the sliding glass door that led to the third-story deck, I saw a figure: my mother. “Mom?” I said.

She looked up, and I could see she was crying. “Mom? What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said. She blinked quickly and ran the sleeve of her bathrobe across her eyes. By the time I reached her—a few seconds—she was composed. “I was just thinking about Christmas,” she said, a false edge of cheer lining her voice. She clutched the picture in her hands. The blurry one, taken on a fall morning a lifetime ago when we had covered Ellie in leaves.

“Oh, Mom,” I said.

“No,” she said.

“I won’t….”

“Caroline,” said my mother, her voice grave, “we are talking about Christmas, and only Christmas.”

“Mom, it’s OK to miss her.”

“I hope I get a cashmere sweater,” said my mother.

“Mom, we have to talk about this,” I said. “She’s gone. It’s not your fault.”

“And maybe some of those cute fur mittens.”

From my mother’s lap, where she remained trapped in a black-and-white picture, my lost sister looked out at us, laughing.

Meet the Author

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of seven novels, including The Nearness of You, How to Be Lost, Close Your Eyes, and The Same Sky. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.

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How to Be Lost 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this intelligent book - so much so that I miss the characters and want to call them and see how they are doing. I would read a sequel!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book extremely captivating from page one. The charaters were well developed and interesting. Read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was incredible! It was an enveloping story that held my attention for the entire morning it took for me to read. The characters and storyline were very much 'everyday people' who may very well lead these lives. I loved the way the author wrote chapters in different formats, from letters to memories. That really keeps your attention. I cried and laughed and remembered young love all in the same read. This author has a wonderful style and makes you take a good look at your own life, goals, and dreams.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I read the synopsis of this book, I was hoping the storyline would be along the lines of 'Deep End Of The Ocean'. Unfortunately, only the basis of the story is the same: a missing child. Although this book is about a sister's journey to find answers, we never really get any. However we do get PLENTY of swear words (99% of which are VERY unneccesary and 110% annoying). It really lowered my opinion of this author. There are sections in the book where I found myself wondering what I was reading, because characters were thrown at us without explaination. The mystery of the story isn't really even revealed and even now, I find myself wondering what the point was. The only parts I found truly enjoyable were the flashbacks involving Carolyn and her family. I kept reading, however, because I was anxious to see how it turned out... and I ended up being very disappointed.
Anonymous 19 days ago
This book had potential to be so much better than it was. The storyline was enjoyable but very predictable. I feel that the auhor could have gone into so much more detail with all of the characters. Also the ending was terrible. It seemed as though the author decided to just stop writing and walk away -- so much potential. Very disappointing.
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
I loved this book & highly recommend it! I really like this author and plan to read all her books, the end to this book just brought a smile to my face and a hppy feeling in my heart, really enjoyed this novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a quick read, but enjoyable & introspective
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this was a good book got real good 1/2 way through. She writes amazing books. You won't waste your money if u purchase this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book years ago and it still lingers in my mind. I can totally relate to the loss and hopeless need for answers.
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Or edd
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book I just wish it would have ended better. It makes u feel like it needs a sequel.
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Great book, read the entire book in 4 hours but I hated the ending. Sort of leaves you wondering still...
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tchrreader More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. It had great characters and plot. I couldn't put this book down, I wanted so badly to find out what happened that I just kept reading. This is the story of three daughters, the youngest one disappears and the family falls apart. Fifteen years later the oldest daughter is a cocktail waitress and she sees a photo. Could it be her younger sister? She can't rest until she finds out so she goes on a journey to find her missing sister. This was a great book, I highly recommend it!
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