“When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”
Following a devastating moment in the hours after Carmen’s wedding, three siblings and their friends move through the next twenty-five years under its long shadow. Through friendships and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays, and the modest calamities and triumphs of ordinary days, Carry the One shows how one life affects another, and how those who thrive and those who self-destruct are closer to each other than we’d expect. Whether they take refuge in art, drugs, social justice, or love, Carol Anshaw’s characters are sympathetic, funny, and uncannily familiar as they reflect back to us our deepest pain and longings, our joys, and our transcendent moments of understanding.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Carry the One includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Carol Anshaw. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Carry the One begins in the hours following Carmen’s wedding reception, when a car filled with stoned, drunk, and sleepy guests accidently hits and kills a girl on a dark, country road. In that moment, the future lives of those involved, including Carmen and her brother and sister, are transformed. They are bound and burdened by this shared tragedy—in the arithmetic of their lives, when they add themselves up, they always have to carry the one. Over the next twenty-five years—through friendships and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays, and the modest tragedies and joys of ordinary days—each passenger moves forward against the press of guilt and reacts to this shared and catastrophic moment in different and unexpected ways.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. At her wedding reception, Carmen, in a moment of doubt about marriage, thinks: “Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. Forward was the only available direction.” How much of life is lived on this principle—taking the step that seems to come next? How often does this turn out to be following one bad decision with another based on the first? How does this apply to the characters in this book?
2. How do Carmen, Alice, and Nick change over the course of the novel? Which of them changes the most, which the least?
3. Even before the accident, the lives of everyone involved were entwined (by marriage, sex, family, friendship). Discuss how the nature of these relationships is affected by the accident. Does the accident strengthen any bonds? Does it weaken others? How does each character’s perceptions of the others change throughout the course of the novel?
4. As the driver of the car, Olivia is the only one who serves prison time for Casey’s death, and as Nick enviously reflects, “prison was forcing her to atone.” Do you think the others try to atone in their own ways? Do you think Nick’s envy of Olivia’s punishment is justified? Do you agree that, in a way, Olivia is the one who suffers the easiest punishment, because even though prison is brutal, it’s a physical, finite sentence for what they collectively did?
5. Nick’s is the only life that eventually falls completely apart. Do you think his drug use is related to his guilt, knowing he could’ve prevented Casey’s death? Why or why not?
6. Mourning and loss are themes of the book. How do the characters grieve differently? How does this grief affect their choices? In what ways can mourning be a selfish experience? What do the characters mourn besides the loss of Casey’s life?
7. Discuss the way parenthood and parent/child relationships are portrayed in the novel. Think about Gabe and Carmen; Rob and Heather; Nick, Carmen, and Alice’s relationships with Horace and Loretta; and even Terry and Shanna Redman.
8. Romantic relationships seem to be tough for all of the characters. Alice spends her time yearning for Maude (who cannot seem to decide what she wants) and sleeping with other women to fill the void, but once they are finally together, they fall out of love. Carmen’s first marriage fails, and she looks at her second as a “small mistake.” After Olivia leaves, Nick turns to prostitutes and never has a meaningful relationship again. Even Tom finds that his affair with Jean was the thing keeping his marriage together. Discuss these relationships and the dynamics within the couples.
9. Alice is deeply affected by her visit to the Anne Frank house, but when she tries to talk about it with Anneke, the curator politely changes the subject. “Anne Frank is complicated,” she says. What is it about the house that you feel touches Alice so deeply? Is this exchange applicable to Alice’s feelings about the accident?
10. When Kees Verwey sees Alice’s paintings of Casey, he says to her: “…You are honoring her with these, giving her a kind of life. What if these are the best paintings you will ever make?” Alice replies, “Then maybe not showing them is the terms of my atonement.” Do you agree with Verwey or with Alice? Do you think she should have shown them? Or do you think it would have been wrong to profit from Casey’s death, the way Tom profited from the song he writes about the accident?
11. When Nick visits Shanna Redmond, she says to him about Casey: “She was such a careless kid…Never looked both ways like I told her. You can tell them that. The others. Not that it was her fault. But it wasn’t all theirs either.” Do you think Nick ever passes this message along? Do you think it would have helped the others to hear it? Or at that point, was it meaningless, given all they had been through?
12. Alice feels Casey is dictating the paintings of her unlived life. Do you think she is? As with the ending of the book, do you feel information sometimes passes between the world of the living and that of the dead?
13. How much of our present is shadowed by our past? How long do we carry regrets forward?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the author’s website, www.carolanshaw.com, to learn more about Carol Anshaw’s writing and to see her own paintings.
2. Discuss which character each member related to most. Then have each member select their ideal cast for the movie version of Carry the One.
3. Read one of Carol Anshaw’s previous books (Aquamarine, Lucky in the Corner, Seven Moves), or another novel that explores the complexities of choices, family relationships, love and loss, such as Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. How are they similar? How are they different?
A Conversation with Carol Anshaw
Can you tell us about yourself?
I grew up in a deeply conventional suburb of Detroit. Reading novels made me aware of a world beyond those regulation lawns. From the time I could read, my father drove me to the library every Saturday and I took out the maximum number of books allowed. My parents were not educated and had no way to guide me in my reading. When we moved into our new house, they filled the family room shelves with books from a place that sold them by the pound. I read all those books.
My fantasy was being kidnapped by a motorcycle gang, then dropped off in a city where I would live in a boarding house with colorful characters. [I’d scoped out both the gang and the boarding house in movies.] Unfortunately, none of this happened, but after college, I was able to get as far as Chicago. I found a newspaper job, then a few years later, quit to start writing fiction seriously.
To support myself I did a ton of freelance journalism, mostly movie reviews. Later I began writing essays on books for the Village Voice. I published a regrettable first novel, then went 14 years before Aquamarine was published. I was in the tunnel that whole time, teaching myself to write.
I was married for several years. Then, in my thirties, when evidence started mounting that my sexual orientation was shifting [this time it wasn’t movies that provided the clues], I got out of my marriage and started life again from scratch. I got a cheap apartment. The first morning I woke up with a roach crawling across my mouth. The people above me fought through the night, throwing furniture out the windows, threatening to burn down the building. None of this really mattered; I knew I was moving in the general direction of authenticity, and this was thrilling.
Now single, I needed more money to live, and started writing paperback novels for young adults. I think I wrote over 20 of these, all under pseudonyms. I could write one in 5-6 weeks. I was using everything I made to buy myself time to write. At one point my savings totaled $72. I had a dinner for four I could make for $10. I wrote Aquamarine by maxing out a credit card.
Belatedly, I went back to school for an MFA as a teaching credential, but the experience turned out to be much bigger than that. For the first time I had a community of fellow fiction writers. I also found a great teacher and mentor, Sharon Stark, who still works with me. Finally I found my way to SAIC. Fifteen years later, I am still there, still happy to be part of its sparky, clangy, pinball energy. One of my great rewards there has been helping my students with their novels, seeing those books through to being born.
Where did the idea or inspiration to write Carry the One come from?
I wanted to make a story that has sweep but feels concentrated. I wanted to make a book that is recognizably a novel, but also something a little new. Someone once said that in terms of narrative, what follows violence is always interesting. Setting up the violence in the book as a death, an accident, but one that could probably have been avoided was a layer I applied to the story, to give it moral shading. The characters feel greater and lesser degrees of responsibility, and have very different responses to what happened, but none of them can outrun its shadow. I also wanted to write a story that covers a significant span of years, to examine the part time plays in love and obsession, in relationships among siblings, in political convictions, and the struggles of an artist. And in the case of one character, the way addiction can trump everything else. I see a lot in literature about addiction, but very little about what it’s like for the family of an addict, how one member can create a centrifuge, pulling the others into the spin, how much energy is spent trying to retrieve the person hurtling downward.
As you mention above, much of Carry the One focuses on addiction. Have you or has someone in your life struggled with addiction? Is it something you’ve experienced firsthand?
My brother was an addict, which was hard to live through with him, also hard to write about.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Is there a character in Carry the One with whom you identify the most? Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Alice is the character most like me, but she is not me. Nick’s addictions are those of my brother, but the character is not my brother. Carmen is an amalgam of a lot of women I’ve admired over the years. The way I write is like cutting up real life into tiny pieces of confetti, then taping them back together in a wholly different pattern.
Like Alice, you’re a painter. How does your painting influence your writing?
All my life, but more intensely for the past 10 years or so, I’ve been painting as well as writing. My partner says it’s like I’m having an affair, slipping up to the studio at 11pm and painting into the night. I think it helps me with my writing by providing a counterbalance to working with words. With painting I’m making narratives in a different language that’s all about color and light.
The siblings are named after characters from famous operas: Carmen, Lucia, and Nabucco. Why did you choose those particular names for them? When you begin crafting a character, what tends to come first for you—name? Personality? Physical attributes?
The names Carmen, Alice and Nick came to me. Later I made these nicknames from pretentious names their pretentious father gave them. The personality comes to me first with every character. From there I have to give them names and figure out what they look like.
Although the novel alternates viewpoints and follows each character, we don’t really get to see their lives from Tom’s or Maude’s perspectives, even though they were in the car. Was this simply because you felt that Carmen, Nick, and Alice were the main characters of the story? What made you decide to use Olivia as the character who brings the novel to a close?
Yes, the siblings are the main characters. I had more of Tom, also of Jean, in earlier drafts, but in compressing the book much of them got squeezed out. The novel has to end with Olivia; that’s all I can say about that.
Does the story end for you where it does for us as readers? Or have you imagined their futures in your mind, beyond the pages of the book?
This is always a question I love getting from readers, what happens afterward. I think it implies I’ve brought the characters to life. If the characters live beyond the last page, they do so in the reader’s imagination.
Early readers keep asking about the ending. Is there anything else you can tell us?
All I can say to the reader is: read the last page a little slower than you ordinarily might.
Who are your writing influences? Any books you are currently reading that you would recommend to your readers?
I’d say my biggest influences are Shirley Hazzard, Alice Munro, and Don DeLillo. I’m reading half a dozen books at the moment. When you’re a writer and teach writing, you are always reading the books of your friends and students and former students, books you might use in a class, books to fill one or another gaping hole in your reading history. Then, once in a while, you get to pick up a book and read it purely for pleasure. Just now that book is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.
What are you up to these days?
I’m working on a sequence of paintings of the British writer, Vita Sackville-West. I read all the time. I’m still catching up on all the books I should have been reading instead of those books that came by the pound. I’ve been in the same relationship for 15 years now. This has been just a really lucky break, finding this extraordinary person and being able to hold her interest for so long. We live most of the time in Chicago, some of the time in Amsterdam. We have a dog, Tom, who has doubled in size since the day we got him at the shelter and were told he was full grown. He is by now the size of a pony. When he wants something on the kitchen counter, he just stands up and takes it. I take French lessons. I am trying to master crow position in yoga. I like to have friends over, and I can now afford to serve dinners that cost more than $10. I can even put flowers on the table.
Are you working on a new novel?
I’m working on a novel about the trickiness of modern urban life. It’s called The Map of Allowed Wandering.