Amanda Eyre Ward

"How to Be Lost"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAR 27, 2005)

"I couldn't sleep, and watched the shadows on my wall as cars drove by. I realized that instead of being an out-of-work cocktail waitress with a murdered sister, no parents and cellulite, I was going to Montana, trying to find a new story of my own."

The Winters family of Holt, Long Island, NY, seem to have it all. They live in a big, beautiful house with high ceilings in an affluent neighborhood. The three Winters daughters are bright, adorable, energetic. They attend excellent schools. A tight threesome, Madeline at 13 years-old is the organized one, the "good girl." Caroline, just a few years older, watches out for her younger sisters, she is the responsible one. She gives Madeline her first cigarette when the youngster is only 13...but tells her not to inhale. Ellie is five, with a grin that lights up her whole face....and whatever room she happened to be in. Their love for each other shows on their faces. Behind their home is a small expanse of wooded land. The girls turn this area into a make-believe city, where Madeline is called Moo, Caroline is Candy, and Ellie becomes Laurel. Each has a chic apartment in this fantasy land, Candy has a career as a famous musician, Laurel is a busy actress, and Moo teachest school and has a boyfriend named Renaldo.

Mr. Winter is a Wall Street stockbroker and quite successful; when he is not at home, en famille. In the grand house with the tall ceilings, around his beautiful wife and three lovely daughters, Mr. Winter is a drunk - a mean, sadistic drunk, who occasionally causes his children to hide together in their walk-in closet, and even to sleep there, fearful, all huddled in a pile of comforters. Oh, he knows where they are, but the closed-in closet gives the kids a feeling of safety and the sounds of his harsh voice, his rage, and their mother's crying, are diminished with the door closed. Mrs. Winter, Isabelle, a still beautiful southern belle and ex-beauty queen, left the good life behind when she moved to New York looking for a different experience. She eloped and got what she wanted, sadly. Spending much of her time in her own world, she is lost in the past. Withdrawn, vague, she is inaccessible to her daughters. Caroline, who is the novel's narrator, once says, "We did not feel sorry for them, my parents, wandering miserably through their grand house like ghosts. All we knew was that they were not like other parents, and we hated them for it. When you are small, if you reach out and nobody takes your hand, you stop reaching out and reach inside instead."

One evening, after a particularly nasty episode, the three sisters decide to run away. Caroline had just received her driver's licence which makes leaving town less complicated - so the girls think. She preps her mother's Oldsmobile for the trip. This was the get-away car they planned to take. Necessities are packed, including gummie bears for Ellie, and the route to New Orleans (their destination), is marked on the map. The three make clear arrangements to hook-up after school, and then take-off. Caroline and Madeline wait hours for Ellie at their designated meeting place. She never appears. They saw her enter school that morning. They never saw her again. That was fifteen years ago.

Ellie's disappearance has a tremendous impact on the family which still resonates today. Her two older sisters' are left with holes in their lives as well as their hearts. Talented Caroline, with so much potential to be a concert pianist, had been accepted to study at the Juilliard School. She uses that talent to serve cocktails in a New Orleans rotating bar, The Highball - just hanging out. At 32, she is lost. Her evenings are spent reading trashy novels. She waitresses during the days and "fantasizes about strange men." Her once close relationship with Madeline is now tenuous, at best. Madeline married a stockbroker, a nice guy, and they live in Manhattan. She had argued with Ellie on the day the child disappeared, and has been steeped in guilt ever since. Mr. Winters died years before of cirrhosis. Isabelle Winters has greatly improved with his demise, although she still packs the Chardonnay away. She constantly leafs through publications, searching for photographs which might be of her missing daughter. One day she sees a photo in People Magazine of a Montana woman at a rodeo. The woman's face is Ellie's, or what Ellie would have looked like at 21 - she is sure of it. Caroline is skeptical but admits there is a resemblance. Madeline, now pregnant, wants her long lost sister declared dead, so she can finally have closure. Both young women have always blamed themselves for Ellie's disappearance.

Caroline makes a spur of the moment decision to drive to Montana to see if the lead on Ellie pans out. Armed with maps, copies of the photograph, a book called "Be Your Own Private Dick," and a case of Dixie beer, Caroline heads to Missoula, to begin the search.

Amanda Eyre Ward's beautifully written narrative unfolds as part suspense novel, part memoir, as Caroline is accompanied on her trip north by memories of a troubled childhood and reflections on her present circumstances. Hers is an intelligent voice, filled with wry observations. She is sharp, perceptive and seems to hide a world of hurt behind her cynicism. The author's pacing is on target. The prose is spare, which accentuates the emotional intensity. This is a page turner, with twists that will keep the reader guessing. And the plot holds surprises right up until the final sentence. I like this novel so much I must read Ms. Ward's first book, Sleep Toward Heaven. Highly recommended.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 102 reviews
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"Sleep Toward Heaven"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer MAY 28, 2003)

"On Wednesday, they begin to get ready for the Satan Killer, who is due to arrive after lunch. They order a lamp and a radio from the commissary, and charge them to Tiffany's account. Karen makes the bed in the empty cell with clean sheets. All the women on Death Row, who had been using the cell as a storage room, have removed their belongings to give the Satan Killer a fresh start."

Karen Lowens is on death row...the name the media gave her is Highway Honey, and she doesn't lie about it, she killed those men, all of them save two; they had picked her up for sex, and when they got rough, she killed them. The last man she killed, Henry Mills, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She's too burned out to feel anything, even regret, for she's being punished every day. Karen has full blown AIDS.

Celia Mills, Henry's widow is still having an impossible time of it, even five years later. Going through all of the steps of grief, she finds her anger, her bitterness, hard to control. As Karen's execution date looms closer, people try and pressure her into writing a letter, making a plea for mercy, but, as she says, "What it comes down to is this: If Karen Lowens lives, it means that Henry's life was not worth anything at all."

The final piece of the triangle is Dr. Franny Wren. We meet her at the funeral of a little girl she tried desperately to save, despite the fact the lead doctor on the case knew there was nothing more they could do. Filled with the regret that death brings, especially hard when the victim is so small, crushed by the feeling of responsibility, and caged by her engagement to Nat, it almost seems like the death of her Uncle, who raised her, is the last straw. Almost as an act of repentance, she takes over her Uncle's job as prison doctor, where she meets Karen, and tries once more to do the impossible.

Some books are pleasure, like good chocolate, but they don't really change you. You wouldn't trade reading them for anything, but all they give you are pleasant memories. Other books open doors, show you a facet, a place, a perspective, that you've never seen before. You come back from reading it immeasurably moved, and as you close the book you know you've been changed. This book is the latter. I was deeply drawn into each woman's story, each woman's place. I had never seen Death Row in such a way...the strange closeness these women: an aging lady whose addiction to marriage is second only to her addiction for feeding her husbands cyanide, a Charlie's Angel-look-a-like who swears someone else filled her children's sleep suits with stones and drowned them, an ex-hairdresser who hired someone to shoot her husband and children, and Karen, who's mother started selling her at the age of 12...outside the prison walls, these women would have had no context with which to communicate to each other, would never have given each other the time of day, but inside they share a closeness, proving the saying that death is the great equalizer. All the details, their privileges and their attitudes ring true. While it is hard to completely sympathize with Karen, it is impossible not to care for her, and not to wish that she would get the chance to die with dignity.

Franny's world is quite different...Nat, her fiancee, can't understand why she buries herself so in work and leaves no time for him, she feels trapped, and is unable to understand why he feels the way he does, why he can not see that her work is important. Her thoughts are mostly filled with regret over the little girl, over not spending more time with the man who raised her and who put her through school. Through her eyes we see Texas from the viewpoint of a woman who left, went to the big city (the biggest...she lived in New York) and now has returned, and long enough time has passed so that when she does cop to being from there, people rarely believe her. She wants to save Karen, in part, because I think she feels it would somehow earn her forgiveness for her past wrongs...which strangely weren't really wrongs at all. I also think she wants to save Karen because she is a good person, a person who wants to help, to heal.

Celia is, at least for me, the one we pity the most. She really has a hard time...she functions, going to her job at the library, reading catalogs and taking care of her dog, but she has cut herself off from everyone. She bears regrets, too. She wanted children. She wants her husband, with all his silliness and love and goodness back. I love her voice, sarcastic, straight forward, she doesn't moan when she mourns, she is bitter and angry, and it keeps her form getting weepy on us, even when her memories, her attempts to be normal, such as when she buys a bikini from a catalogue, make one's heart bleed a little for her. I found myself getting disgusted when a library patron comes in, all tired from being at a death penalty protest, and starts on her about Karen's upcoming execution.

My fellow reviewers are calling this book extraordinary, and they are right. There are some incredibly placed words in this book, every chapter, every paragraph is crafted with perfect care. There are three very distinct voices...and very distinct points of view, and each one is given the same amount of attention. Ward does not throw down the soap box and preach against or even for the death penalty, which would cheapen the experience, she tells each story with honesty and beauty, allowing us to decide within ourselves what is right.

Twenty four hours later, and I am still reeling over the experience of this book. It is a work of elegant prose.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 65 reviews

Austin Chronicle excerpt from Sleep Toward Heaven

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About the Author:

Amanda Eyre WardAmanda Eyre Ward was born in New York City, and graduated from Williams College and the University of Montana.

Her short stories have appeared in Story Quarterly, the Mississippi Review, the New Delta Review,, and the Austin Chronicle. She has also been a regular contributor to the Austin Chronicle for several years.

She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, the geologist Tip Meckel. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014