It sounds unbelievable to a lot of us, but for some people, their early 20s are the age when things start to come together. They graduate college, find a fulfilling job, marry their sweetheart and start a family.
For the rest of us, though, it's a markedly different story. We think of that time in our life as the age where we wandered around life aimlessly, maybe finding a temp job, dating a succession of inadvisable people and hanging out in bars. We viewed our more successful peers with envy and possibly a little bit of suspicion, and avoided them unless they were buying us drinks.
The three young women at the center of Erika Carter's debut novel Lucky You belong to the latter group — they're unsure of what, if anything, they want to do with their life, and they kill time drinking and entering into quasi-relationships with men they're not exactly sure they like. It's a charming, understated novel that perfectly captures the feeling of being young, depressed and adrift.
Ellie, Chloe and Rachel are friends, kind of — maybe more like semi-friendly acquaintances. They all met working at Viceroy, an uninspiring bar and restaurant in the college town of Fayetteville, Ark. The novel opens with Ellie walking home in a winter storm after her shift serving drinks — she drunkenly invites a group of strangers to her apartment, waking up the next morning with no memories of what happened, but with used condoms and a broken shot glass as unhelpful reminders.
She knows she needs to lay off the alcohol ("She had another idea: she would quit drinking forever tomorrow, which meant she should drink everything she could tonight") but it distracts her from thinking about Jim, her emotionally distant boyfriend, who's gifted at playing country music but not a ton else. ("He thought Things Fall Apart was a breakup book. Like, a self-help, how-to-get-over-your-breakup book," one character marvels. She spends her nights drinking, writing haiku, pining for Jim or for anyone and drinking some more.
Ellie sees a chance to change her life when Rachel invites her and their mentally ill friend Chloe to spend time with her and her boyfriend Autry at their off-the-grid house in the country. "You can leave all your unhealth behind," Rachel pleads. "You can escape from yourself here — I mean it. Seriously." Ellie's skeptical, but grows to like the de facto detox. "I mean, to be totally honest, I can't believe how drunk I used to be," she says. "And hungover. Constantly one or the other. An awful cycle of escape, despair, escape, despair. Add a little self-hatred and utter panic into the mix."
Unfortunately — to quote the book that Jim was hilariously unfamiliar with — things fall apart. Ellie takes trips to Bentonville to drink in bars and rendezvous with her married lover, to the dismay of Autry, a dopey hippie Svengali with a penchant for meaningless and deeply stupid aphorisms. ("There's this thing I like to say, that I came up with. Tension is who you think you should be, relaxation is who you are.")
Lucky You is a marvel of a book, partly because Carter does a perfect job balancing humor and tragedy. The funny moments bring to mind the fiction of Mary Robison and Ann Beattie; the darker ones are reminiscent of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Her humor is dry, and never at the expense of her characters. (OK, it's sometimes at the expense of Jim and Autry, but they deserve it.)
She is deft at describing how it feels to be young and at loose ends, living in a college town and entertaining half-hearted thoughts about someday moving out. And in Ellie, she's created a perfectly drawn character — impulsive, numb, using her own mysteriousness as self-protection: "It was easier this way, not to give anything away, not to reveal yourself to anyone." Some people instinctively run away when they've been figured out — Ellie is one of them, even if she might not realize it.
Carter has written a wonderful novel, intelligent but unpretentious. As an author, she's both unsparing and compassionate, and among her greatest gifts is an ability to find a savage kind of beauty in the unlikeliest of places. "It was beautiful, she thought, but what do you do with it?" ponders Ellie at one point, looking out a window at a wintry tableau. "It seemed as though it wasn't enough just to look at beauty — you had to do something about it. It was as though you had to destroy it to be satisfied." It's sometimes difficult to watch Ellie do her best to destroy herself, but Lucky You is, in the end, challenging, intelligent and, yes, quite beautiful.