Cardboard Cliches

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw has been on my to-read list since it came out last spring. The central idea was intriguing: tracking the emotional of a hit-and-run death, focusing on the people in the car. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book so thoroughly flawed as this one. In short, the dialogue is unbelievable, the characters are cliches, the narrative is so chopped up that it feels more like a short story collection than a novel but the descriptions and simple human observations are very good, often beautiful.

For every "Olivia's family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity" and cats whose "purring made them seem motorized" you have to wade through dialogue such as: "I hate when you talk that voodoo science crap." You could plan an evening's entertainment around having your friends over to read some of the dialogue aloud, competing to see who can actually make it sound like something a human being would say.

The characters saddled with this dialogue aren't exactly fleshed out in believable ways beyond their giggle-worthy dialogue. It's a weird combination of characters with mostly believable emotional responses utterly unbelievable actions and words. The main characters, the Kinney siblings are fleshed-out cliches: Nick is the drugged out astrophysicist, Alice is the wildly success artist with women falling out of the sky to sleep with her, and Carmen is the earth-mother left-winger. Half the time their dialogue consists of "stuff lefties say" instead of anything that sounds remotely like what real people say. This is livened up by the occasional snatches of "stuff conservatives say" and that's even worse.

When Anshaw is on, usually in her descriptions, she's great. When she's not on, it's painful and stunningly off-key. Her unsympathetic characters are so unrealistic it stops the show - like when Carmen's in-laws bring a statue of the Virgin Mary to her wedding. That's how Anshaw conveys that these are spiritually certain folks, with shtick. The nadir is the chapter devoted to 9/11. For a writer who understands the subtler nuances of guilt this is one ham-handed scene. Carmen is spouting conspiracy theories as the towers fall, Alice yammers on about being numbed by special effects and Nick awakens from a drug-induced stupor to announce, "We just took delivery on a big message." It doesn't sound anything like people experiencing the horror of 9/11, it sounds like exactly what it is, someone thinking back to that day.

I don't know whether to recommend this book or not. Even it's exploration of the effect of the accident on the Kinney siblings isn't entirely successful - only one character truly deals with it and the end is just beyond words goofy. But there are phrases and lines that stick. If you're truly interested in this book, the Audible version may be your best bet. Renee Raudman's reading gives dialogue a humanity that is missing on the page.

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