Amanda Eyre Ward: How to be Lost (2005)

How to be Lost

How do you cope when someone gets lost?  How much time must go by until you allow yourself to move on? Does your life come to a standstill after the loss? How many possibilities are there in one life? These are some of the questions Amanda Eyre Ward explores masterfully in her lovely first novel How to be Lost.

The Winters are a dysfunctional family, rich and apparently happy, but there are some dark secrets hidden beneath the surface. The parents are heavy drinkers and their three daughters are often scared by their fights and excesses. One day the youngest, Ellie, disappears and the family breaks apart.

The novel starts fifteen years later with the oldest daughter Caroline working as a cocktail waitress in New Orleans. She’s left suburban New York shortly after the disappearance of her baby sister. Like her parents, she is a heavy drinker. She is not unhappy, her life isn’t what it could have been, she’s all but forgotten about her talent as a pianist, but this provisional life of drifting and temporary jobs suits her.

When her mother sees a picture in a newspaper, showing a young woman who looks exactly like the lost sister, all their lives are set in motion. Caroline will go on a trip and look for the young woman. The outcome of her search will free them one way or the other. Maybe it is Ellie and they finally find out what has happened or if it isn’t, they will be able to declare her dead.

What I liked a lot about Eyre Ward’s novel was how it manged to tell a riveting story in a suspenseful way but still captured the interior lives of the characters and did unfold the back story in a captivating way. It’s a book that asks a lot of questions and answers many of them.

One of the most interesting ideas is the theory of the split lives which is presented towards the end. The idea is that every time you make a decision, your life splits and someone else, somewhere, lives the life that you could have had.

The exploration of how many different lives we could have lived if at one given time something particular hadn’t happened or if, at another time, we would have made a different decision, fascinates me. Looking back at my own life so far, I see such a lot of “split moments”, moments where I could have done something different and would now be living a completely different life. Capturing this premise masterfully, is one of the strength’s of this novel.

Often when I read about a dysfunctional family I feel it is done in a much too biased way. With her gentle tone and the transformative ending, Ward creates a much more nuanced portrayal. There can still be a lot of love and deep and even healthy feelings underneath the dysfunction. And there is hope and the possibility of a new life for many children coming from families which seemed rotten inside.

How to be Lost is one of those novels I liked a lot while I was reading it but, unlike many others, after putting it away, it still haunts me.

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29 thoughts on “Amanda Eyre Ward: How to be Lost (2005)

  1. This sounds really fascinating. I like the idea of a dysfunctional family (whose family isn’t at least a little bit dysfunctional, anyway?) that has deep feelings of love at its core, and the plot sounds really interesting. Nice review :)

    • Thanks, Leah. It was one of the elements I liked best. Often when we read about dysfunctinal families it’s just as if somene emptied a garbage bin over our heads and there can be all sorts of feelings in dysfunctional families (quite agree that most families are somewhat dysfunctional)

  2. What a wonderful review, Caroline. Definitely adding this to my TBR pile.

    I can’t begin to imagine how horrible it would be to have a family member go missing. My husband has a nephew who disappeared on a hike 12 years ago and has never been found.

  3. Sounds great.

    You know that some physicists believe that the “reality splitting” is a real phenomenon and that at each instant the universe is splitting down almost infinite paths. Obviously it is is also fertile territory for philosophers.

    • I liked it a great deal.
      One charcater in the story reads physicists and that’s where the theory is formulated. Before that it’s just “hidden” in the story but there she makes it explicit. I liked that additional touch a lot.
      It’s hard to imagine nd at the same time it feels right.

  4. Beautiful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked ‘How to be lost’ so much. I love the title of the book. The story also looks quite fascinating. I liked very much what you said about split moments and split lives. It is a really fascinating idea. I also loved the last sentence of your review. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy. The idea of the spilt lives is quite fascinating. It’s obvious that we all have various possibilities and that our decisions rule some out. It’s funny to think someone else, somewhere lives those lives.

  5. This sounds good. I often wonder how my life would be different had I made some other choices. Of course nothing can be done now for those decisions I made, but I do wonder if I would have been happier (or not) or live somewhere else or have a different job…. I like the sound of a novel that explores these questions. I think I have one of her books, but I am pretty sure it isn’t this one–now I am going to have to go dig through my piles to see which one I do own. Lovely review.

    • Thanks, Danielle. I liked it very much because of all the questions it asks. I see a few distinct moments in my life, if I had decided otherwise, I’m pretty sure, everything would be very different now.
      I suppose that after a while, getting older, we forget that we can still make decisions which will have a huge impact.

    • Guy mentioned that he liked it very much and knowing that your taste in books is actually quite similar, I suppose you’ll like it as well.
      I will probably read it soon too.

  6. I can see the appeal in this book. A compelling subject for a novel – I’m trying to think of other’s with a similar theme but can’t recall them. It must be terrible to live your life in the consciousness of one dreadful event which has coloured everything that happened subsequently

  7. I seem to be the only one not tempted. The split thing theory sounds a bit artificial to me. You know the proverbial “avec des si on peut mettre Paris en bouteille”.

    Thinking of what other choices you could have made always seems sterile to me as you can’t change anything anyway. Better focus on the future.

  8. I read this several years ago now, and enjoyed it as much as you did. I thought she took what could have been a very standard story and made something intricate and powerful out of it. I wonder if she’s written anything since? I’d certainly read her again. Lovely review!

    • Thanks, Litlove, I’m very glad to hear you liked her too. It’s true what you say that the story could have been very standard but she turned it into something special.
      I’d like to read her again as well. I think she has at least two or three more books out.

  9. I don’t remember whether I have read about dysfunctional family or not and to be honest, it’s not something that intrigues me either.
    However, although I am not intrigued with the story, I am intrigued how it ends…you left us all danggling there ;) (well of course, or else it’ll be a spoiler). Great review, Caroline

    aaa..I just remember, the book I have just finished can be condidered as one.

  10. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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