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  • How to Be Lost
  • Written by Amanda Eyre Ward
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345483171
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How to Be Lost

A Novel

Written by Amanda Eyre WardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amanda Eyre Ward

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Joseph and Isabelle Winters seem to have it all: a grand home in Holt, New York, a trio of radiant daughters, and a sense that they are safe in their affluent corner of America. But when five-year-old Ellie disappears, the fault lines within the family are exposed: Joseph, once a successful businessman, succumbs to his demons; Isabelle retreats into memories of her debutante days in Savannah; and Ellie’s bereft sisters grow apart–Madeline reluctantly stays home, while Caroline runs away.

Fifteen years later, Caroline, now a New Orleans cocktail waitress, sees a photograph of a woman in a magazine. Convinced that it is Ellie all grown up, Caroline embarks on a search for her missing sister. Armed with copies of the photo, an amateur detective guide, and a cooler of Dixie beer, Caroline travels through the New Mexico desert, the mountains of Colorado, and the smoky underworld of Montana, determined to salvage her broken family.

Excerpt

One

The afternoon before, I planned how I would tell her. I would begin with my age and maturity, allude to a new lover, and finish with a bouquet of promises: grandchildren, handwritten letters, boxes from Tiffany sent in time to beat the rush. I sat in my apartment drinking Scotch and planning the words. “Mom,” I said to Georgette, the cat. “Mom, I have something important to discuss.”

Georgette stretched lazily on the balcony. Below, an ambulance wailed. A man with a shopping cart stood underneath my apartment building, eating chicken wings and whistling. The heat had dimmed, but the smell of New Orleans seemed to grow stronger: old meat, sweat, and beer.

“Mom,” I told the cat, “please listen to what I am telling you.” Although Georgette continued to ignore me, the man with the shopping cart looked up, and I took this as a good sign.


I had to work that night, so after the Scotch and a small nap, I stood in front of the mirror and put on mascara. I was going for sultry European, so I took my hair in my fingers and twisted it, securing the roll with bobby pins. Was this a chignon? How did one pronounce chignon? In any case, my hair was out of my face, and this would please the health department. I washed my hands with the rose-scented soap my sister had sent me, and slipped my feet into heels. As a final gesture, I drew a mole next to the left corner of my mouth.

We had been told, at The Highball, to “glamorize our images.” This is a direct quote. Jimbo, the club’s elderly owner, had begun soliciting buyers for his “little piece of New Orleans history.” The Highball was the cocktail lounge at the top of the World Trade Center in New Orleans. It revolved. If you sat drinking expensive themed cocktails for a full hour, you would see the whole city, from the lazy Mississippi River to the dilapidated downtown, to the French Quarter, and back again to the mighty Miss, Old Man River.

Jimbo had implored us, in his memo, to glamorize. I believe he thought that despite the old plush décor, despite our advancing ages (I was thirty-two, in a town where many cocktail waitresses were underage runaways) and annoyed demeanors, if we tarted up, he could convince some Yankee that The Highball was an exclusive club, and not a tourist trap that revolved. So, why not? My old look (irritable and overtired) hadn’t gotten me many dates. Along with Winnie, I went to Payless Shoes and bought a few pairs of high heels. We bought fishnet stockings and perfume. And then we went to Bobby’s Bar and drank beer from giant cans until we ran out of quarters for the jukebox.



I drove slowly to The Highball. With my car windows closed and my air-conditioning on, the night was lovely. People sat on their front steps drinking from paper bags and watching kids play soccer. I was one of the few white people in my neighborhood, and one of the many heavy drinkers. I waved to Lady B, my landlord, who was sitting on her porch swing and braiding her daughter Lela’s hair. Lady B winked in response.

Although I didn’t have to, I drove up Canal Street, past Harrah’s. Three frat boys, their necks strung with beads, sat on the sidewalk outside the casino. Their eyes were glazed, and they were not drinking from their giant daiquiris. They were simply staring at the street, defeated. These were the sorts of people who eventually roused themselves to ride the elevator to The Highball. More than one of my customers had fallen asleep in their velvet chair.

Things were slow up at The H-ball. Winnie was leaning on the bar, her tight dress leaving no inch to the imagination. Behind the bar, Peggy the yoga queen mixed a martini like Tom Cruise, shaking her hips this way and that. A few customers gazed out the window. One couple was making out madly. The good thing about a revolving bar is that odious customers are soon out of sight.

“Look at you!” said Winnie, pointing red fingernails and laughing throatily.

“What?” I said. “It’s a chignon.”

Winnie and Peggy looked at each other. Sometimes, I surprised them.



It was a long night, and everybody wanted bourbon. When my shift was over, even I wanted bourbon, instead of my usual Scotch. Peggy poured me a stiff one. “I am dreading tomorrow,” I told her.

“Why?”

“I have to tell my mother I’m not coming home for Christmas. She’s going to flip.”

Peggy sat down on her stool. She had removed every bit of her eyebrows, and drawn thin lines. “Why not?” she said.

“What?”

“Why aren’t you going home?” said Peggy. She poured herself a glass of bourbon.

“Oh, it’s a long story,” I said. “For one thing, I’m an adult, you know? I can’t go flying home to New York for every holiday like I’m in college or something.”

“I never went to college,” Peggy said, dreamily.

“And my family…well, it’s a bit fucked up, is the thing,” I said.

“I wonder,” said Peggy.

“What?”

Peggy sipped her drink, and looked through the enormous windows at the sparkling city below. “I wonder who I would be,” she said, “if I had gone to college.”

“I went to college,” I said, “and I’m still here.”

Peggy nodded. “But you’re you,” she said.



On the drive home, I fantasized about my Christmas alone. I would buy a little tree for my apartment and decorate it with lights. I could spend the day at the movies, or at the Napoleon House, eating a muffaleta sandwich and then slowly drinking my way through a bottle of house red. Winnie had already invited me over for turkey, and I could watch all the kids at her house open presents. Or I could work on Christmas, and make a bundle. Jimbo paid double on holidays.

I wouldn’t have to hear it from my sister Madeline and her investment banker husband, Ron. And the Christmas party. My mother insisted on keeping up the Christmas party tradition, making us don taffeta dresses, hiring the bartender from the Liquor Barn. She made the same meatballs, a little too sweet, and the cheese ball. The cheese ball! There must have been a time when an enormous mass of orange and pink cheese covered with nuts and parsley was fashionable, and my mother has not moved past that time. My mother, who was a model in the sixties, who loved fondue, who made cheese balls and laughed so brightly it made me want to cry.

Last year, I wore the costume and deflected questions about my career. (“Just tell them you’re still playing,” my mother had said, “I beg of you.”) I drank too much wine, listened to my brother-in-law’s investment advice, and did not argue with Madeline.

I went to sleep before making a scene, but in the middle of the night, I woke up. The guests were gone, and the condo was silent. Next to me, my sister breathed slowly. Strands of hair clung to her flushed cheeks, and she smelled of face cream. I looked at her, the curve of her nose, her thin lips. Her eyelashes, clean of mascara, were pale, and her skin was lightly freckled. In many ways, she was a stranger to me now: an Upper East Side wife, nervous and easily wounded. And yet, in the glow of the streetlamp outside the bedroom, she was the same girl who had once told me You and me are our family, her eyes searching mine for a promise. I touched her cheek with my fingers, and she stirred, furrowed her brow, but did not wake.

Our room was on the third floor of my mother’s condo, and I went downstairs, past my mother’s bedroom and the den, where Ron slept on the pullout couch. (For the first year of their marriage, Madeline had slept with him on the uncomfortable couch at Christmastime, but now she came upstairs to sleep next to me.) I had hoped to find some leftover meatballs, or to make a ham sandwich with the Harrington’s maple ham and the little slices of rye bread. I made my way to the kitchen, but as I stepped carefully to avoid waking Ron, I heard something.

I turned toward the sound, and closed my eyes. It was muffled, a sort of breathing. For a moment, I felt a wave of fear, thinking it was a prowler, a robber, murderer, or rapist, but then I remembered I was in suburban New York, and not New Orleans, and my mother’s condo complex had a guardhouse. I was wearing wool socks and my Christmas nightgown.

My eyes adjusted to the light. In the kitchen, by the sliding glass door that led to the third-story deck, I saw a figure: my mother. “Mom?” I said.

She looked up, and I could see she was crying. “Mom? What is it?”

“Nothing,” she said. She blinked quickly and ran the sleeve of her bathrobe across her eyes. By the time I reached her—a few seconds—she was composed. “I was just thinking about Christmas,” she said, a false edge of cheer lining her voice. She clutched the picture in her hands. The blurry one, taken on a fall morning a lifetime ago when we had covered Ellie in leaves.

“Oh, Mom,” I said.

“No,” she said.

“I won’t….”

“Caroline,” said my mother, her voice grave, “we are talking about Christmas, and only Christmas.”

“Mom, it’s OK to miss her.”

“I hope I get a cashmere sweater,” said my mother.

“Mom, we have to talk about this,” I said. “She’s gone. It’s not your fault.”

“And maybe some of those cute fur mittens.”



From my mother’s lap, where she remained trapped in a black-and-white picture, my lost sister looked out at us, laughing.
Amanda Eyre Ward|Author Q&A

About Amanda Eyre Ward

Amanda Eyre Ward - How to Be Lost

Photo © Cory Ryan

Amanda Eyre Ward is the award-winning author of Forgive Me, How to Be Lost and Sleep Toward Heaven. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau at www.apbspeakers.com  

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH AMANDA EYRE WARD

Q: Your first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, grew out of your interest in women on death row and prison life in general.What inspired you to write the story of How to Be Lost ?

A: Growing up in New York, I was haunted by the disappearance of Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who vanished on his way to the school bus in 1979. Etan’s parents stayed in the same apartment for decades, hoping he would return home. When a man gave police reason to suspect he might have killed Etan, Etan’s parents had to decide if they should declare their son dead in order to prosecute. This story possessed me. I have a very close relationship with my two sisters, and I wondered whether I would want to keep searching, against all odds, for a lost loved one. Etan’s
story, combined with my own demons, was the inspiration for How to Be Lost.

Q: There’s a great line early in the novel, where Caroline thinks, “When you are small, if you reach out, and nobody takes your hand, you stop reaching out, and reach inside, instead.” Indeed, becoming a writer or an artist really involves withdrawing into your own world, reaching inside yourself. Do you think this is true for many creative types?

A:
This is absolutely true. When I write, I am absent from the world, and sometimes can’t even remember what I’ve written. It’s hard to snap back into everyday life after writing dark scenes. For this reason, I have started writing in hotel rooms. (Or motel rooms, which are even more fascinating.) I can check in, imagine entire worlds, and then check out and go home to my family. Also, there’s room service.

Q: The structure of How to Be Lost is complex, following narrative threads in the present through Caroline’s eyes, then through chapters that offer glimpses from her past, leading up to Ellie’s disappearance. But there are also mysterious letters from a woman named Agnes Fowler and the story of Bernard, Caroline’s mother’s spurned fiancé, woven through the novel as well. How did you piece all of these elements together? Did it come naturally, or was it something that came to you as you were writing? Which part of the novel did you most enjoy writing?

A:
I am a huge fan of Alice Munro, and one of the aspects of her writing I love most is that as a reader, I often know more than the individual characters in her stories. By setting different perspectives next to each other (and by using letters and delving into different time periods) Munro allows her readers to create the story themselves. I kept this very much in mind as I wrote How to Be Lost. I wanted the reader to have an active role in piecing together the novel. I write scenes on index cards and lay them out, moving the cards around, adding new ones, or throwing them away
as seems fit. While I was writing How to Be Lost, I lived in Austin, Texas. I contacted some motels, hoping to find a quiet, cheap place to write for a week or two. Paul and Carole Freeman, who own Cottonwood Cove cabins in Tow, Texas, offered me a cabin for a week for $100. (Paul is a writer, and was sympathetic.) I packed up my dog and my index cards and moved in. Most of my neighbors were visiting Cottonwood Cove to fish, drink beer, or both. Each day I laid out my index cards on a bed and typed away, breaking only for a swim in Lake Buchanan. One day, my dog Arlee jumped on the bed and the cards went flying. I took a picture of the mess and sent it to my editor, explaining that if the novel was a fiasco, it was Arlee’s fault. As I wrote, I simply trusted that everything would come together, but there were times when I was nervous. I didn’t know what had happened to Ellie, so writing How to Be Lost was a process not only of discovering the story, but then discerning how to reveal it to readers. There are hundreds of pages that are not included in the final draft of the book. When readers write and say, “I wish I knew what happened to baby Isabelle,” or, “Did Agnes and Johan end up together?” I can write back, “I’ll mail you the scenes.” I also had a baby in the middle of writing the book. Like the dog jumping on my index cards, everything fell apart for a while, and then I had to put it all back together.

Q: The desire to escape the past, to escape the ties that bind (like family) and to try to create a new life—this theme courses through the novel. For example, Isabelle’s fleeing to New York to pursue her dreams, or Caroline’s move to New Orleans. Was this is a conscious choice as you wrote, or was it something that sprung from the characters’ nature?

A: For me, writing is a way of living other lives. I have a hard time making decisions, and in my fiction I like to explore the “what ifs”: what if one of my sisters had disappeared? What if I ran away to New Orleans and became a cocktail waitress? What if I stole a car and drove to Montana, leaving tonight?

Q: Many great writers have written about New Orleans before—from the magnolia-draped Gothic plays of Tennessee Williams, to the surreal and violent New Orleans in Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors. Your take on the city seemed just as original, in that you recognized and captured the hilarity and ridiculousness of the place as well as its charm. Why did you choose New Orleans? Have you lived there, or was this based purely on short visits?

A:
I have lived in New Orleans, and I visit often. It is a city filled with ghosts and colorful present-day lives. New Orleans is stunningly beautiful and it is bizarre. It’s thriving and falling apart. During a hurricane that threatened to wreck the city, many residents stayed in their homes and threw parties, serving drinks called Hurricanes. There isn’t a city in the world as crazy New Orleans.

Q: Both of your novels tackle weighty stories—women on death row, missing children, imploding families. That said, your novels are laced with sharp wit and humor. Is this humor intentional, or does it come naturally?

A: For me, sadness and humor go hand in hand. When I read from the book, some audiences laugh, and some look stricken. I never know what people are going to make of my sense of humor. I was recently speaking to a reporter in Paris about the humor in my first novel, and she said, “What humor? This is the saddest book I have ever read.”

Q:
Can you talk about your writing habits? Now that you’re a mother, I’m sure it is harder for you to find time to write. How have you adapted? Has being a mother enriched your creative life at all?

A: The birth of my son has changed me completely. The world feels very fragile, and I think I am afraid of exploring dark places that I would have had no qualms about striding into before, when it was just me who was at risk. I am more interested in exploring the nuances of love, and now I understand that you don’t have to leave your own home to find stories that are weighty and frightening. For the first year of my son’s life, I didn’t write very much new material. I think now that there are times in your life when you are too involved and overwhelmed to be reflective, to find the place outside your life where you can perch and observe. After a while, I stopped feeling guilty about this, and luxuriated in feeling overwhelmed and sleepy. I read long novels and held my son and ordered Chinese takeout. It took me a while to become a mother, and I am still wrestling with how to balance my writing and my desire to care for my husband and son. I wrote the mother and novelist Jodi Picoult to ask her how she found the secret to this balance. Her answer was simple: there is none. I think it’s a constant and evolving struggle and a constant and evolving joy.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, and what are some of you favorite novels? How have they influenced you? What current writers and books excite you? Do you read other writers while you are working on a novel?

A: I read all the time. I read to escape, to learn, and to relax. My favorite novel is Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham. I steal his techniques unabashedly. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles taught me that you can make a reader scared to death by describing the landscape. Light Years by James Salter, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, and The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter showed me the poetry in ordinary days. Lorrie Moore’s strong voice and sense of humor is an inspiration. I also admire and devour books by Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Jane Smiley, Norman Mailer, and Anne Tyler. These are writers whose words are beautiful and who also know how to keep you reading all night. Recently, I’ve loved Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta, Case Histories by the dazzling Kate Atkinson, and Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz.

Q: Can you talk about your next book, or upcoming projects?

A: I am in the glorious middle of a novel right now. It’s an exciting and frustrating time. I am trusting my instincts, so the book could be wonderful or a disaster. The book is the story of two worlds colliding. I am spending my time with a lonely girl named Suzy, who lives in the Lobster Motel on Cape Cod, and an aspiring ballerina named Joyce who lives in a South African township called Guguletu. One of the girls will grow up to steal the other girl’s husband and ruin her life.

Praise

Praise

“One of those sink-your-teeth-into-it novels that remind you why you love to read.”
–The Charlotte Observer

“Invites comparison to The Lovely Bones . . . Ward’s depiction of family, with its attendant love and guilt, will keep you turning pages.”
–People

“A compelling page-turner [that] unfolds as part suspense novel, part memoir . . . [How to Be Lost] chronicles Caroline’s tale with vivid eloquence, clarity, and dark, nuanced humor.”
–The Boston Globe

“The narrative is so engrossing, so propelling, you’re surprised to come upon the last page.”
–Time Out New York

“Affecting . . . sustains suspense to the very end and brings a tear to the eye.”
–The Denver Post
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What is the significance of the title? Who in the book is lost?

2. What is the distinction between being lost and being missing?

3. What is Caroline searching for?

4. How does Ellie’s disappearance affect the relationship between Madeline and Caroline?

5. How is setting important in How to Be Lost? Where does Caroline feel most comfortable, and why?

6. What role does alcohol play in the novel? How does it initiate, complicate, or smooth out circumstances?

7. In what way do Winnie and Peggy function as surrogate sisters for Caroline?

8. There are a number of mothers in How to Be Lost: Isabelle, Sarah, Winnie, Madeline, and Mrs. Lake. Discuss these different images of motherhood. Are any of these mothers revered? Criticized? What role do these women play in protecting their children and offering them a sense of the world?

9. Bernard tells Agnes that “There’s always another chance to take what you deserve.” Do you think that Bernard’s belief is always possible? Do any other characters in the novel seem to hold a similar view?

10. Roxie utters only a few words in the novel, but she leaves a strong impression on Caroline. What role does Roxie play in Caroline’s journey? What sort of revelations do Roxie and Olivia provide for Caroline?

11. Compare and contrast Charlene with Agnes. Both are lost to their families but there is a distinct difference—the element of choice. Discuss these two women and how the element of choice affects their separate lives.

12. At the beginning of the novel, Caroline attempts to avoid going home to her mother’s condo in New York for the holiday, but by the book’s end, she feels at home there. What brings about this change? How is home defined for her in the end?

13. Ward uses multiple perspectives—Caroline’s first-person account, Agnes’s letters, and a third-person, omniscient narrator—to tell this story. How did this structure affect the story and your understanding of it? What is the role of the reader in the unraveling of the mystery of the Winters family?

14. If you have read Ward’s previous novel, Sleep Toward Heaven, do you see any common themes or elements in How to Be Lost ?


  • How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward
  • August 30, 2005
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $13.95
  • 9780345483171

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