The Lauras: A Novel
“an adventure with family, love, and destiny at its core, and an authentic and unique triumph of skill and imagination.”
Sara Taylor’s second novel, The Lauras, is an original and inspired take on the American road trip, a perfectly executed novel with both heart and bite. Following the highly praised The Shore, which examined male violence and female survival through the lives of several generations of families in rural Virginia, The Lauras navigates the relationship between adolescent Alex and Alex’s mother, as they travel to uncover the secrets of their past. It examines gender constructs, transient lifestyles, and surviving on the fringes of society in an original way against that most classic of narrative backdrops, the great American highway.
One morning Alex is woken and bundled into a car packed with their belongings:
“It was a few months before I realized that Dad wasn’t in the car with us. I wanted to sit up, to ask why we’d left him behind, what happened to make them stop fighting so suddenly, but my mother had put me.”
Alex has never really known very much about “Ma’s” youth, but over the course of their time on the road, they will begin to discover the people and experiences that have shaped her. While there is a bond linking Alex and father throughout, the more they travel across land, the more Alex begins to acclimatize to life on the road, and relish the freedom it can offer.
Alex’s mother had an unusual, difficult upbringing, her family’s chaotic and sometimes criminal lifestyle leading to her spending time in the social care system. In a home for adolescent girls she will experience intense female friendship, witness exploitation and abuse, and fall in love with one of the series of women that she will encounter that will come to be known as the Lauras.
This book describes the lifestyles and realities of those at the bottom on the economic pile—those on the run, sleeping in cars and working in motels, who shop at the Salvation Army and drink endless coffee refills at greasy roadside diners—with great empathy, giving complexity and dignity to those often ignored or caricatured.
The Lauras is also a coming-of-age novel, with Alex beginning the journey in early teens and ending after a 16th birthday. Taylor gives voice to complex adolescent sexuality, never shying away from the realities of a hormonal teenager sharing a motel room with a parent. The writer’s clear-eyed, honest portrayal of the nuances of sexuality in general is striking. She demonstrates the relationship between our mind and our bodies, our desires bound up with ancient memories and triggers.
While attempting to go back home, Alex is hitchhiking and is sexually assaulted by a man driving an "ugly brown Oldsmobile" who informs her that “no one is entitled to a free ride.” While attempting to bury the feelings associated with that day, they will continue to invade Alex’s thoughts:
“My erotic fantasies grew elaborate, absurd, surreal, only tangentially related to normative sexuality, barely probable or biologically possible, but the more wild my desire and outlandish my thoughts, the more likely I was to be suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of warm man and cinnamon chewing gum, the feel of a rough knuckled hand, the taste of salt and pennies.”
There are a lot of different themes explored in this novel, and with Alex in particular the issue of gender identity. Alex is either of biologically ambiguous sex, or doesn’t identify with the label of male or female by choice. It is never spelled out because, as Alex tells those who become confused and enraged, it doesn’t matter.
Taylor plays an interesting thought experiment with the reader here. As it is gradually revealed that Alex is neither boy nor girl, the reader is likely to have projected a gender onto the character already. However, on inspection, she has written completely authentically, intuitively, and imaginatively on sexuality and desire, relationships with mothers and fathers, school and friends, without ever indicating whether Alex is male or female, a clever and creative demonstration of gender as a social construct.
The character’s androgyny attracts attention, with Alex being hounded to identify as male or female at each school in whatever town they end up in:
“They were assholes for thinking that it was any of their business in the first place, and why did it matter whether I was evolving into man, woman, or an entirely different species? Knowing someone’s sex didn’t tell you anything. About that person, anyway. I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave toward them, the assumption you make about who they are and how they live, tells an awful lot about you.”
This seems like an incredibly wise view on gender for a teenager, and there can be a feeling that the author is taking over the adolescent narrative voice to put across her own view on gender. She was criticized for this slightly distracting style with The Shore (The Guardian’s Kate Clanchy wrote that one character had a “delightful but surely unlikely sense of feminism for 1876,” while another “is well acquainted with therapy-speak” in 1933) but is not necessarily a bad thing, and at least Taylor has strong messages to convey through her characters.
It becomes apparent that Alex’s mother is looking for an old love while sorting out some unfinished business along the way. While this is a novel with vast psychological depth, there is lot of humor and wild adventure woven into their trip as they settle a debt with an old boyfriend who owns a strip joint and tattoo parlor and rescue a teenage girl from an arranged marriage in a fundamental Christian sect.
As her mother works out her past, Alex wonders about why they left and the relationship to both mother and father:
“Maybe they could have worked it out, maybe it was better that they didn’t keep trying, that Ma left when she did. I don’t know if it would have been better if she hadn’t taken me with her: what so irritated her about me were all of my similarities, all of the ways I was my father wrought small. I was her also, but those parts were less glaring: one doesn’t recognise oneself staring out of another’s face.”
The Lauras is a wonderful journey across America on the edge. It’s an adventure with family, love, and destiny at its core, and an authentic and unique triumph of skill and imagination.