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.