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Twenty years ago this month, I wrote an enthusiastic review of Carol Anshaw’s first novel, Aquamarine. “Filled with real life and emotion, Anshaw’s inventive novel celebrates the possibilities and pluralities in all our lives, showing us how choices made long ago steer us in unforseen directions.”

Hmm. Much the same can be said of Anshaw’s fourth novel, Carry the One, with a few minor word changes. “Filled with life and emotion, Anshaw’s affecting novel celebrates the possibilities and pluralities in all our lives, showing how long-ago events shape us in unforseen ways.”

And yet this is a book with a very different plot and characters as three Chicago siblings with neglectful parents reconfigure their family equation over a quarter century. In the wake of Carmen’s 1983 summer wedding to Matt, her sister Alice and brother Nick are among the stoned passengers in a car that barrels down a country road at night, hitting and killing a 10-year-old girl.

The tragedy affects all involved in different ways. Carmen’s first marriage is “tainted,” and she and her winsome son Gabe eventually form a blended family with a kind-hearted man and his troubled daughter. Alice comes into her own as a painter with a series depicting the dead girl at different points in her life, all the while trying to manage her yearning for Matt’s sister Maude, whom she was kissing in the back seat when the accident occured. Nick, who actually saw the child in the split-seconds beforehand, is so burdened by guilt that he marries the car’s driver after she gets out of prison, makes ritual visits to the girl’s family, and eventually ruins his career as an astronomer with drink and drugs.

And everyone in the car, Alice notes, remains connected by a sad arithmetic. “Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”

What saves Carry the One from sagging into depressing melodrama are Anshaw’s assured narrative skills, the telling nuances with which she depicts her characters’ emotional lives in a series of set pieces/chapters, many of which are wonderful stand-alone stories. She’s often witty, too, as when Alice both envies and pities activist Carmen “power walking through life.” Or when Nick, who has been throwing money at two hookers, both named Mandy, tells Alice he has fallen in love with one of them. “‘I’m just guessing,’ Alice said. ‘It’s Mandy, isn’t it?’ ”

Anshaw also writes great kids and dogs. I’m not about to forget Gabe’s dog Walter Payton. In fact, there’s a lot of Carry the One I’m going to carry with me — as a blessing not a burden.

Open Book: I borrowed a hardcover copy of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One (Simon & Schuster) from the Orange County Library. When my teeny tax return comes in, I think I’ll buy a digital copy for my Nook. And I’m going to reread Aquamarine as soon as I find it in my stacks.

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