The bride, Carmen, is pregnant and marrying without conviction at the start of Carry the One. Carmen's astronomer brother, Nick, is wearing a dress and getting high. (Nick's girlfriend is wearing a powder blue tux; it's 1983.) In a back room, Carmen's artist sister, Alice, is in an erotic swoon, entangled with the groom's sister with an ardor destined to consume her for years to come. All this happens within five pages, even before the fatal car accident that affects the course of the next 25 years in Carol Anshaw's splendid new novel. And immediately, in those first pages, Anshaw asserts the swing and force of her seductive narrative style. In a prepublication interview, she explained, ''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.'' Done and done.
Carry the One sits somewhere between a Jonathan Franzen novel and a collection of haiku. Anshaw establishes a vivid cast of interrelated characters and then moves them along with an economy that belies the writerly skill involved in capturing full lives through distilled moments, the precise charting of x- and y-axes. The accident simultaneously changes those affected and reveals what is the most difficult to change: Carmen the do-gooder always settling for less, Nick the self-destructive addict, Alice forever bruised by passion.
Anshaw is herself a painter as well as a writer, and her visual sensitivity shows. One passing fellow is, for example, ''so tall and thin that when he crouched or sat, he collapsed in on himself, like an ironing board.'' In sketches, landscapes, and erotic etchings, she carries not just one but all her characters through a quarter century of adulthood. And she makes the task look graceful. A