“You and I and Someone Else,” by Anna Schachner

Anna Schachner

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Perceptive insights and clever word plays highlight Anna Schachner’s debut novel You and I and Someone Else. Set in North Carolina, the story centers on several families coping with loss: a young wife’s loss of her husband, a woman who suffers a late-term miscarriage, a couple who lose a six-year-old son, and a woman who learns she can’t become pregnant.

Frannie Lewis, the first-person narrator, is thirty-six, unmarried, with a habit of choosing unsuitable men who don’t stick around. As Frannie’s child-bearing years are rushing toward an end, she realizes she longs for a baby of her own—and additionally hopes it will give her father a reason to fight the cancer destroying his body. The novel shifts back and forth in time with numerous flashbacks and imagined scenes in the past.

Cutting a large swath through the novel is Frannie’s obsession with her parents’ stumbling, detached, yet enduring marriage. In a rather unusual piece of narration, she imagines her parents’ early life together and her own conception. Frannie’s father, aloof and secretive, has ties to a second family, obligations he doesn’t explain to Frannie or her mother. He also sneaks off to spend summers with the carnival, again without explanation. In turn, they sneak around, following him, trying to understand his strange behavior.

Frannie considers two men as possible fathers for her children. Hugh she has known since childhood, but she regards him more as a dependable friend than a romantic partner; the other, Jude, is a baker she has recently met. Five years earlier Jude and Rita lost their son in a tragic accident. Their marriage didn’t survive. Although the ever-present lost son complicates Frannie and Jude’s relationship, his death also serves as a connection between them. As a child, Frannie lost an expected baby sister when her mother miscarried. When Frannie learns she can’t carry her own child, she asks Jude’s ex-wife Rita to become her surrogate. Ordinarily, this might be a spoiler, but the author makes the unusual choice of providing this information in the prologue.

Schachner peppers the novel with observations that soar above the ordinary. Frannie imagines telling her father that “truth is bittersweet and fleeting, like just about anything else worth having.” Anyone who has lost—or imagined losing—a parent will relate to Frannie’s reaction to her father’s request to be cremated, her insistence it wasn’t time yet for that talk: “I was determined that my father would see me stoic and steadfast, reinforced by the second-best date outfit. In my imagination, his death had always required my ability to be strong, but I wasn’t sure I would be.”

Equally insightful is Jude’s reaction to Frannie’s worry that their love might not last: “It only has to change, evolve. Nothing has to last.” His maturity and experience allows him to understand that early romantic feelings don’t last, but if you’re lucky they evolve into other forms of love. Experience has taught Jude’s ex-wife Rita some hard truths about parenting as well: “When you become a parent, you don’t really have a chance to think about the hierarchy of duties. There’s no time-out for thinking—it’s all doing. I don’t know if one quality is more important than the other, but I would say that responsibility and love are about the same thing.”

Fresh, detailed descriptions help to enliven characters, such as this one about Jude: “I wanted to see how he would unfold his body from that position, how that much melancholy could be gathered up and taken away.”  In one of my favorite scenes in the novel, Frannie’s mother performs magnificently when Frannie announces that she can’t bear children:

“A lot of men might not want me if I can’t have children.”

“A lot of men don’t count.” She folded her hands on the table and looked me in the eye. “Don’t worry yourself about a lot of men.”

Her mother then insists that they go shopping as a distraction, as therapy. Her mother may have many flaws, but she is just so perfect at this moment.

Also admirable are spot-on descriptions, like a huge roll-top desk compared to “a stoic beast with an enormous mouth full of paper.” And this rendering of a previous boyfriend and Frannie’s reaction to his leaving simply sings:

He called every day, showed up when he was supposed to, and brought me small, eccentric gifts. One week longer, one more sentimental note pinned on the back of a vintage handkerchief, and he could have folded me up and kept me in his pocket alongside whatever plans he had for leaving.

At times, the novel’s delightful humor provokes laughter. Like the juxtapositions in this line: “If he hadn’t already been able to drive, I would have taken him for new school clothes, or at least a vaccination.” Early on, all the word plays are enjoyable. You can’t help but laugh over the father seeing his wife draped in a fake fur cape, and he declares, “Fe fi faux fur” or fortune cookies “so stale they could only tell the past.” Yet eventually the word games feel strained; instead of being the distinguishing characteristic of one person, they pour from the mouths of everyone. The dialogue sometimes suffers because it feels too witty, too bright.

Anna Schachner is clearly a talented writer with a host of skills in her arsenal. We look forward to reading more of her work. She has published short fiction in many journals and magazines, including Puerto del Sol, Ontario Review, and The Sun, and she contributes articles about books and literary culture to publications such as The Guardian and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Originally from North Carolina, Schachner lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is the editor of The Chattahoochee Review.

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