Carol Anshaw’s novel Aquamarine tells the story of Jesse, a former bronze medalist whose second-place finish behind Marty Finch at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City haunts her for the rest of her life. But it isn’t the fact that Jesse lost that race that bothers her so much as the fact that Marty, with whom Jesse had a brief affair prior to that last race, simply vanished from her life and returned, without answering any of the letters Jesse wrote, to Australia, once the summer games had finished.
This story—that of Jesse and Marty—both frames and imbues, by threading throughout, the alternative narratives of what might have been that make up Aquamarine. Sandwiched between a prologue—October 1968, Mexico City—and a corresponding epilogue—December 1990, Brisbane—are three different stories dated July 1990. These are the three versions of the way Jesse’s life might have worked out after losing that race when she was eighteen years old.
The first story—set entirely in New Jerusalem, Missouri, where Jesse was born and raised and continues to live, heavily pregnant and married to a man she loves but isn’t passionate about—lays the foundation for the other two stories by introducing the reader to the cast of characters who will continue to reappear in those stories. These characters include Jesse’s mother, with whom she never quite got along, her ‘retarded’ brother Willie, and a friend of her mother’s named Hallie who was always more understanding of Jesse than her mother ever was.
The novel is homey, in a sense, and grounded, and as much about the quality and limitations of life in a small midwestern town than it is about Jesse’s sexual ambiguity. In the second narrative, which begins in New York City, Jesse is living with her girlfriend Kit, a soap opera actress who agrees to return with Jesse to New Jerusalem for Jesse’s mother’s birthday. Here too the contrast between life in Manhattan and New Jerusalem, between Jesse’s fears and expectations and her desire both to hide and reveal her relationship with Kit serves the larger purpose of explaining why Jesse had to leave in order to become the woman she is. While the third story, that of having gone to Florida with a man named Tom who abandons Jesse with their two kids when the business of coaching potential champions fails, offers yet another layer of possibility, that of a still-young mother of grown and problematic kids facing a bleak and lonely future.
I can’t remember now exactly what led me to Aquamarine but I do recall that it had to do with the playing out in the novel of these three different outcomes, these alternative visions of what might have been. That fictional idea, in itself, was attractive to me, since each life involves the passing of many crossroads, when to have chosen a different path would have led us somewhere else entirely. Or almost entirely. Since wherever we go it is always ourselves, and where we have come from, that we have to take along, like essential luggage, on that journey.
Photo by De Sander van Ginkel – Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50842827