Blue Water, By A. Manette Ansay, Morrow, 280 pp., $24.95
On a December morning in 1999, three weeks before Christmas, Meg Van Dorn was driving her 5-year-old son Evan to school in the rural Wisconsin town of Fox Harbor. Their car was struck by another vehicle, killing the boy. The drunk driver, Cindy Ann Kreisler, was Meg's childhood friend.
What ensues for Meg, in this exquisite novel by A. Manette Ansay, is a journey on the blue water of the Atlantic Ocean, where she and her husband, Rex, sail from Maine to the Caribbean aboard their boat Chelone, longing to be adrift in a place ``without history."
But a deeper past persists, as Meg's journey is really on the darker seascape of adolescent memory, which undulates like the water itself through this novel. There, she recalls her life with Cindy Ann -- when they were close; when not -- ultimately finding a way to live on.
Doing so would seem beyond human capability, given so deep a loss. It is complicated by many parts of Meg's life, including Rex's support for their lawsuit against Cindy Ann. Yet Meg's answer arises precisely because the loss is unimaginable, to Cindy Ann as well as to her. It rests on Meg's steadily emerging acceptance and understanding of why Cindy Ann has become the tragedy she is, one who easily might find herself driving drunk one cold December morning and killing a boy.
This is a novel of solace through empathy. Meg is devastated, but she comes to see Cindy Ann as devastated also, not just by the accident but by other people over the years, including Meg herself. So while life after Evan's death is a struggle, Meg realizes she and Cindy Ann must work every day to endure it, and "the only person who truly understands this, I think, is Cindy Ann," Meg says.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel could have been a cliche. But Ansay's clear voice, clean style, true characters, and sophisticated plot exude a gem. The passages that structurally mirror the way memory works are especially impressive. Except for one rushed passage, when Meg picks up Cindy Ann at a Twin Lakes hospital, the novel moves as gracefully as the Chelone.
"That night, sleeping in the cockpit -- I could not bring myself to lie down in our berth -- I dreamed that Cindy Ann and I were stepping, once again, through the doors at Twin Lakes. Only this time, we were forced to plunge, headfirst, through solid glass. I woke up. It was just past dawn; Rex had not returned. I wanted to tell him about the dream, but then I remembered that, of course, I could not. I sat up, my entire body slick with morning damp, and I thought about all the secrets I'd have to keep. Even if Rex did let the suit go, I could never reveal what I'd begun to feel for Cindy Ann, a connection as irrevocable, as inexplicable, as kinship. I would have to sacrifice the very thing that would enable me, finally, fully, to survive."