My copy of Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel How To Be Lost came with an unusual guarantee: the publisher promised to refund your money if you didn’t like How To Be Lost as much as The Lovely Bones . I suppose at the time of its publication, comparison to the juggernaut that was The Lovely Bones would seem like high praise indeed. But I won’t be writing to collect my refund, thanks very much. I loved How To Be Lost and, in fact, I think I liked it even more than The Lovely Bones which, in my opinion, started off with a bang and ended with a whimper.
Ward’s novel concerns the Winters family, specifically the Winters daughters: Caroline, Madeline and Ellie. We meet the eldest, Caroline, first. She’s a hard-drinking cocktail waitress in New Orleans trying to figure out how she’s going to tell her mother, Isabelle, that she’s not coming home for Christmas.
Home isn’t a happy place for Caroline. Home brings back horrible memories of her alcoholic father, her miserable mother and the disappearance of her youngest sister, Ellie. Still, duty calls.
It’s on this visit home that Caroline’s mother shows her a picture in a People magazine. As soon as Caroline sees it, she knows. It’s her baby sister.
How To Be Lost really is a story about people trying to find their way in both extraordinary circumstances (a potential love interest for Caroline has lost his wife in the 9/11 attacks and he is trying to move on with his life) and mundane circumstances (the novel is peopled with characters who spend their lives hunched over beer or whiskey in a variety of scummy bars).
Some people don’t like first person narrative, but I do, especially if the narrator is honest. Caroline is self-destructive and selfish and afraid. Her journey to find the woman in the picture is ill-advised and necessary because by making the journey she is making her first real attempt to leave the past behind.
One of the things I hated most about The Lovely Bones was Sebold’s decision to flash forward into the future. That rarely works for me. Ward doesn’t do this. Her ending, if anything, is a dangling thread. Her ending, for me, was perfect.
This is a gem of a book.