REVIEW: Sara Taylor’s “The Lauras”
Sara Taylor’s coming-of-age road-trip saga, The Lauras, raises more questions than it answers. The ambiguity is (at first) intriguing: it’s a novel of blind corners and dark alleys and long winding roads to who-knows-where.
From the start, the story is a familiar one: in the dead of night, our 13-year-old narrator, Alex, is bundled out of bed and into the car after the latest of many fights between their mother and father. It’s never entirely clear where the pair is headed, but between long bouts of silent chain-smoking, Alex’s mother slips into reverie and tells her kid bits and pieces of her story. It’s a story of almost Dickensian proportions: she is the child of immigrants, the inmate of many foster-homes, and the lover (platonic or not) of half a dozen different women, all called Laura.
As they wander from town to town, from memory to memory, from one shared bedroom to another, in search of yet another Laura and a new place to call home, Alex grapples with the earth-shattering realization that a parent is also a person. “I felt like I’d never really seen her before,” Alex confesses, “like I’d held onto a shorthand image of her that was one half how she’d looked when I was six and the other half the idea of ‘mother,’ which wasn’t too different from the idea of ‘God,’ when you really thought about it. And like God, I’d never really thought about her as a person, instead paid attention to what she could do for me, what the fallout of her wrath might
Taylor excels in capturing the tender but strained relationship between mother and child. As fiercely as “Ma” loves Alex, she is also inherently selfish, pursuing her own half-baked plan without pausing to ask whether Alex wants to be along for the ride. Alex is torn between resentment and curiosity, and forced to confront the unsettling truth that Ma is, more or less, a stranger. It’s a familiar dilemma for anyone who remembers the first moment they realized that their parents had lives before and beyond their children.
Equally familiar to anyone who survived adolescence is Alex’s other problem: a sexual appetite which is suddenly insatiable. But in The Lauras there’s a twist: Alex is not a boy or a girl, and refuses to identify as one gender or the other. Thus the usual adolescent struggle to come to grips with emergent sexuality is especially harrowing—in one scene, disturbing precisely because it’s so easy to believe, Alex is forced into a bathroom and halfway stripped by other students determined to find out what lies between their legs. Taylor, however, protects her young narrator’s privacy and respects their identity: Alex’s gender remains ambiguous and significant without becoming the defining feature of their personality.
Despite Taylor’s empathy for her androgynous narrator, she can’t quite resist the temptation to do what so many other writers of literary fiction do, and wastes entire chapters on young Alex masturbating. It would seem that even in 2017, we haven’t quite overcome the conviction that every literary bildungsroman needs pointless autoerotic marathons to qualify for the genre—when really, in a decade where you can find big-budget smut on HBO, that’s not enough to keep a reader reading, or to garner sympathy. Alex’s restless wanderlust is compelling at the start, but quickly knuckles under to the normal, stultifying lust which plagues most adolescents. It may be believable, but it is also (unfortunately) boring.
The Lauras is promising, but after about a hundred pages, one can’t help wondering whether Taylor is making promises she can’t keep. Her characterization is keen and insightful and her prose elegant, but she can’t avoid the most common pitfalls of the genre. The plot rambles, the characters become tedious, and the prose that was so scintillating at the beginning starts to feel like Taylor just likes to hear herself talk.
There are bursts of baffling action—in one episode Ma accosts a man at gunpoint; in another she resorts to arson—but there’s too much mystery. Even the titular Lauras remain shadowy figures through the end; they defy categorization as a group (one belongs to an isolated and misogynistic religious cult, another is a cancer-stricken lesbian), but Taylor persistently dangles the details out of reach. Like Alex’s endless self-stimulation, it’s as frustrating as it is tantalizing. After 200 pages, I still didn’t know where the story was going or who “the Lauras” really were, and by that point I no longer cared.
“Life so often goes flabby and peters out at the finish point instead of clicking satisfyingly, like the sound of a box being shut,” Alex observes. “That’s why we read, and watch, and listen, because we want that click and life never hands it over.” Ironically, if this is the book you’re reading, there is no click. That may be intentional, but even if it is, the final feeling is still dissatisfaction.
It is a testament to Taylor that one finishes The Lauras wishing there had been more of what mattered. Ma is the kind of character you might fall in love with, if she didn’t keep you at a distance. Alex is the kind of character with whom you might identify, if their identity went deeper than their wandering hands. It’s a story with tremendous potential but, like a long road trip with no destination, sooner or later you have to admit you won’t get far running on fumes.