I’m willing to bet Amanda Eyre Ward is a fan of fairy tales—the kind where children are snatched away by shadowy figures, quests embarked upon by unlikely heroes come to happy fruition, and families, in all their messy love and loathing, understand not only how to be lost, but how to be found. In this, Ward’s second novel, our heroine is a booze-soaked thirty-two-year-old cocktail waitress who works at the rotating bar at the top of the New Orleans World Trade Center and eats “hot dogs by choice.”
As children, Caroline and her two sisters, Madeline and Ellie, devise a plan to escape from their overbearing father and ineffectual mother (both ever-arguing alcoholics). The plan backfires when Caroline goes to pick up Ellie, the youngest, at school, and discovers she has disappeared. Years later, Caroline encounters a photograph in People magazine of a rodeo in Montana. Her mother is convinced that the blurred girl in the portrait is the now-adult Ellie. Caroline resolves to follow this “lead” to Montana, to settle once and for all the question of her sister’s disappearance.
Naturally, it is not enough in a fairy tale for a heroine to merely embark on a quest. She needs to learn something along the way. And learn she does.When Madeline’s baby is born prematurely, Caroline overcomes her hubris in favor of helpfulness and humility. And of course it is only when she lets go of her wishful thinking about her long-lost sister that she is able to access any wisdom with regard to her own life. Despite their necessarily obvious nature, these themes play out in a refreshing way through Caroline’s wry, oblivious voice. She is the kind of woman who drinks cheap beer from the can, and observes of New Orleans’s unique character: “People drop things on the ground. Like, I think I’ve had enough of this sandwich. I’ll just drop the rest on the sidewalk.” At the same time, Ward’s protagonist plays the unsuspecting, well-meaning marionette at whom we feel compelled to shout warnings. Look out behind you! She’s not what she seems! Oh, but he really does love you!
There are times—all of them forgivable—where the story’s language borders on quaint, others where Caroline’s love affair feels maudlin.There is also something strangely stilted about the epistolary sections of the novel, which is perhaps deliberate. The mysterious Agnes Fowler, a young librarian whose letters float throughout the narrative, is an old-fashioned innocent, and we are left to wonder if she is perhaps an imaginary figment of one of the other characters. But then, this is the type of red herring we should probably expect from such a modern-day fable.
It is not always fashionable in literary circles to portray families overcoming dysfunction and heart-breaking twists of fate.We feel more comfortable exiling our joyful resolutions and catharses to daytime TV. Symmetry, especially the fortuitous kind, makes us nervous when we stumble across it in contemporary fiction, be- cause it’s “unrealistic”; it “could never happen that way.” But what we forget about fairy tales is that when they’re doing their job, they’re powerful because they come full circle and strike some universal chords en route. Ward’s talent—and it is a considerable one—is in her ability to build without literary affectation, to a genuine and multilayered emotional crescendo. It’s a happy ending, sure, but it’s hard-earned, and Caroline deserves it.