Anna Schachner’s effortlessly entertaining debut novel, “You and I and Someone Else,” explores the unexpected ways in which people handle the tragic blows dealt out over a lifetime. Suspected affairs don’t necessarily involve betrayal. The reappearance of an ex doesn’t have to evoke jealousy. And secrets don’t require a shattering of the earth to be earth shattering. One thing that makes the book such a pleasure – along with poetic sentences that incite immediate second readings – is that the Atlanta author doesn’t rely on flashy dramatics to engage the reader’s interest.
Frances “Frannie” Lewis exists in a web of interconnected characters, not all of them alive at the tale’s onset. The main ones are introduced in the revealing prologue, which readily gives away details that could have been surprises for the reader if revealed in the proper timeline. We learn that Frannie’s new love interest, Jude, will propose and that his ex-wife, Rita, will soon be carrying an “unborn child low against her narrow hips.” We also meet Frannie’s parents, who she blames for the secrets living inside her, and Rita and Jude’s son Evan, whose accidental death at a young age led to the end of their marriage.
The tell-all element in the first pages seems to send a message: This story is about life’s intricacies, not plot points. The first chapter quite literally begins at the beginning, the night Frannie was conceived during her father’s brief break from Navy duty. It happens hours after the first seed of suspicion is planted in her mother’s mind – one that would fester for 38 years – when she observes him having lunch at a restaurant alone instead of visiting his crazy Aunt Clarisse, as he’d claimed.
It is a mysterious lie, foreshadowing a trove of other secrets that at best make his wife and daughter feel they aren’t enough, and at worst make Frannie think her mom doesn’t love him. Some of these secrets are largely harmless, like learning to crochet or opening a third credit card. Others are harder to explain, like yearly trips to work as a carnival barker for a gorilla woman, an undeveloped tangent that hints at a Tom Robbins influence. And then there is Melissa, the mother he often visits after her husband dies in the Navy. He feels obligated to care for her son, Hugh, who later makes a pact with Frannie to keep their own relationship to themselves – a “childish power play” turned familiar guilty pleasure.
Jump forward to the late ‘90s – a time frame ascertained when Jude playfully swats Frannie, now 36, with a newspaper bearing a photo of President Clinton, a detail that exemplifies Schachner’s mastery of showing, not telling. Frannie has just moved from Charlotte to a one-grocery-store town in North Carolina, and references to the scrutiny of small-town life are frequent: “Then we sat side by side on the steps so that the neighbors wouldn’t miss any more developments in our relationship.”
She first meets Jude when he is despondent and riding a child’s carousel in front of a discount store. They begin dating around the same time his quirky, depressed ex-wife moves back to town, making her presence well known. Complications are compounded when Frannie’s father reveals he has lung cancer, then “Mama” conveniently suggests that “Daddy” might live longer if Frannie were to get pregnant. The good daughter abides by drafting a list of candidates for fatherhood that “contained two people, a man I had known since childhood, and, of course, Jude.” But the plan is derailed by discouraging news from Frannie’s doctor.
Thoughts of potential new life juxtaposed against imminent death brings previously taboo topics to light, like that of the stillborn baby her mother delivered when Frannie was 12. When a newly hired cleaning woman finds the baby food Frannie had rebelliously stolen at that time stashed in a bedroom closet, she demands Frannie and her mom return the expired jars to 7-Eleven, prompting a bonding experience in which the stillborn child’s intended name is finally revealed: Alice. Frannie longs for that kind of openness between her parents, and is determined for it to happen before her father dies. The novel’s resolutions seem less wrapped up with a pretty bow and more buried under layers of tissue paper in an honest, satisfying way.
Except on rare occasions, Schachner’s prose displays a mix of “beauty and practicality,” which is how Jude describes Frannie during their second meeting, and it shines best in darker moments. After her mother, still pregnant with Alice, is taken to the hospital on a stretcher that “disappeared into the ambulance like a baking tray into an oven,” Frannie starts to make a list of reasons she should go to a dance. “It became, however, a list of all the reasons the baby might not have wanted to be born, which began with dentist’s visits and ended with me.”
The most captivating story line, though, is that of Rita and Jude’s lost son. Jude’s reticence to discuss him leads Frannie to seek out Rita, a woman whose grief manifests itself through a “dystopic film set” around her child’s grave at their former home. It was a backyard “made of toys,” a shrine with a jack-in-the-box and limbless action figures hanging from tree branches, tricycles and bikes littered everywhere and a mock garden of baseball bats and tennis rackets stuck in the ground. The collective imagery of this vibrant story, painted in the mind by Schachner, will not dissipate anytime soon.
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‘You and I and Someone Else’
By Anna Schachner
Mercer University Press
$18, 320 pages