by Sara Taylor
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0451496850
By Noah Sanders
No matter the literary accolades thrust upon Sara Taylor and her second novel The Lauras, know one thing: The Lauras, at its heart is a classic adventure novel. A story of two anti-heroes, on the run from lawmen and lovers alike, in search of the buried treasures of the past. Hell, there’s even a treasure map, speckled with x’s that most certainly mark a spot or two. There’s monsters to be fought, secrets to be revealed, and in the end, the gleaning of knowledge about one’s self and one’s familial past is worth far more than its weight in gold.
Woken in the middle of the night and thrust into a car by her roguish mother, the narrator of The Lauras—Alex—unwillingly hits the road. One moment a nerdy, outcasted teenager, the next the sidekick and navigator on her mother’s continent-spanning journey through her past. Armed with only a well-worn, well-annotated map, her mother’s ingenuity, and, well, a gun, the pair careen across the United States of America seeking to rectify past sins and tie off the loose ends of a life lived on the run. Each stop is an opportunity for the author to reveal another facet of Alex’s mom’s childhood in foster and group homes, to the reader and to Alex herself. Houses burn, children are kidnapped, guns are pulled—every pit stop presents a new obstacle, mental or physical in which our heroes must surpass. Every break in the road another nugget of the past is revealed. The Lauras is a slow saunter down memory lane, each step forward another step further into the past.
Taylor layers the stories of each sojourn along the road with Alex’s mom’s own recollections of the past, of her interactions with a series of women loosely referred to as “The Lauras,” of her life before being defined as a mother and a wife. The character of the mother is an absolute joy to take in. She’s familiar—you’ve seen her on cracked sidewalks outside of grocery stores, huffing down cigarettes in the humid swamp of a Southern afternoon—but Taylor doesn’t allow her to be a stereotype. The hard shell and predatory sense of being a loner she wears like body armor is softened by her own memories, the stories of her past she passes along to Alex. “I didn’t realize my mother was a person until I was thirteen years old,” Alex says. By the end of the novel, as richly conceived as she is, she might as well walk right off the page. Alex’s discovery of who she is can be likened to realizing that your mother used to be a storied bank robber—Jesse James or Billy the Kid. And when Jesse James is on the road, well, she likes to spin a yarn.
Taylor manages, with writing razor sharp but infused with a soft, colloquial warmth, to add a sense a vulnerability to the character of the mother. She’s tough as nails, but light as air, liable to drift away if she’s not tethered down. Alex is her only root, and the madcap dash across America is not only her way to make good on a few promises, pay off a few debts, but to pass along the family tradition: adventure. “I wonder if that’s how all the great explorers felt,” Alex says on one long stretch of driving, “hungry and sick and just hoping that they could find some land so that they could get that boiling-hot-fit-your-whole-body-in-at-once-bath they’d been madly wanting.” Because as much as she learns about her mother on their trip, it is the love of the road, the quest, the sheer, simple act of setting out for a destination, map in hand that becomes the great lesson passed along.
The Lauras is best when it’s moving, the interaction between Alex and the mother on their long hours with four wheels on asphalt comfortable and well wrought. Small stops along the way can be wonderful—a moment in Minnesota with the gun and a tattoo shop owner is particularly amazing—but when the duo touches down, Taylor lets the story get loose and it loses focus and steam. There’s a lengthy thread about Alex’s gender and sexuality—kept vague throughout—that runs the course of the book that seems to have great meaning for the author, but she never commits, at least on the page, to why it’s important to the story. One could find meaning in Alex’s genderless life—perhaps when you hit the road, your nothing but a traveler, gender and sex left at the first off-ramp—but Taylor never puts it on the page and it seems too big an aspect of the story to be left to a reader’s imagination. It is instead a rare slow-down in book that could only be described as a cracking yarn.
Aside from its flaws, minor and based in ambition they may be, The Lauras is a fantastic read. Taylor’s way with words and characters and setting revels in the folksy clichés we associate with the South, but her writing never lets them feel forced or lacking depth. “She’d not written the book on how to disappear forever and never be found,” Alex says about her mother at one point, “but she’d read it plenty of times.” It seems Sara Taylor has as well.