Carry the Dog
Everyone has a family history, some more damaging than others, that can shape our lives forever. In Stephanie Gangi’s 2016 debut The Next, the past haunts the present in ghostly form. And now, in her follow-up novel, the rambunctious and moving Carry the Dog, Gangi shows us how uncovering the truth to our past can push us to live better lives in the present.
The story revolves around Bea, a New York woman in her late 50s who is struggling to understand her family’s controversial past while writing a memoir about it. As a young girl, Bea was turned into a sex object when her mother, the famous photographer Miriam Marx, took risqué photos of her and her two twin brothers. These photographs, which became known as the Marx Nudes in the 60s, were controversial for good reason: They showed the children naked and entangled in one another, all posed by their mother.
As the novel begins, Bea is newly forced to think about her childhood, not only for her memoir, but because others have come into her life wanting the story. Dr. Violet Yeun from MoMa wants to exhibit Miriam’s work, showcasing her as a feminist ahead of her time and not some pornographer that the media made her out to be. There is also Bix, an LA movie producer looking to tell the story of the Marx Nudes with the help of Bea. It seems like everyone wants something from Bea and wants to make money off of her tormented life. Even her stepsister, who goes by the name of Echo, wants to refurbish an old song Bea once wrote for her rock star ex-husband, a song she never received credit for:
“I handed my songs to him. Then I lost momentum. I got distracted. I thought that meant I was untalented and unambiguous, plain lazy, but now, I think I see: I had always been told to stay still so I did.”
Bringing up the past has Bea not only questioning her mother’s intentions, but also her relationship with her brothers, one of whom may have abused her before dying at 16 in a fire, while the other left after their mother’s suicide. When Bea finally reunites with her surviving brother she is able to understand more of what happened to them as children, allowing her to finally start living her life and taking better care of herself in the process.
Despite these moments of darkness—abuse, heartache, male dominance, betrayal—Gangi’s story is wildly compelling and hard to put down. I gobbled this book up within a weekend, unable to stop until I got to the end, which I’ll simply say, is equally satisfying. Gangi narrates all this with a light tone that is often humorous and, frankly, very entertaining; her characters are ruthless and utterly relatable every step of the way.
It is true that it’s a sad and lonely life for Bea, and she carries so much psychic baggage that many of those around her are not aware of. The torment of her childhood is partly to blame, yes, but she’s also had a cancer scare and three failed pregnancies. Bea, however, is resilient and we see that as she continues to march on despite all the tragedy she encounters, both as a child and as an adult. Bea is truly a character a reader falls in love with. Throughout the book, we see her grapple with aging, which is no easy feat for women in many ways; but she does so in a way that is endearing, mocking the negative way society looks at us as we age:
“I try to relax my face. I try to look not needy, not old, not angry as I make my way through the dense thicket of youth and beauty. I am the storybook hag, the witch, the crone, terrorizing the enchanted wood. I’ve probably sprouted a wart, or at the very least some fresh hair on my chin.”
Bea is continuously stunned by her aging appearance in the mirror and is self-conscious about wearing the right age-appropriate apparel. She is also at times deflated by the men who seek out younger women, especially such men as her ex. These things that are hard for any woman over the age of 35 to deal with; however, Gangi shows us believably how Bea deals with the aging process with wit, intelligence, humor, and a feistiness that never grows old.