In Marcy Dermansky’s third novel, The Red Car, the surreal and real come together to create an unusual coming-of-age story in a slim jacket. Leah is 33, unhappily married, and realizing that the act of really living her life has stopped. Things comes to a head when she learns that her estranged former mentor-cum-mother figure, Judy, has died from an accident in the titular car, and the memories of her life with Judy come rushing back.
While the novel takes place during the two weeks that Leah flies from New York to California for Judy’s funeral and some friend-mandated vacation, flashbacks throughout flesh out the story of Leah’s unmoored 20s. When Leah and Judy first meet, Leah is in a spiral of bad decisions (from men to roommates to career ambitions, or lack thereof). Judy takes Leah under her wing, but it’s not until her death that Leah realizes how singular and important this relationship has been for her. Lucky for Leah, Judy’s voice becomes a sort of angel on her shoulder at just this moment. Unlucky for Leah, the literal vehicle of Judy’s death was willed to her, and has miraculously (and/or creepily) repaired itself.
The relationship between Leah and Judy probes several facets of womanhood. From mothering and being mothered, to gender equality in the workforce, to gender equality in marriage—the ways in which the two tackle being a woman throughout the novel seem to suggest that Dermansky has some things to get off her chest. But this isn’t a memoir, it’s fiction. “In this book I took more risks than in my other two books,” she says.” I put more of myself, my thoughts, in the characters, but not in the story.”
Dermansky has never had a self-healing and enabling car, she didn’t go to a funeral for someone like Judy, she is not Leah. So when pressed about what inspires the novel, Dermansky says, “I really like reading Haruki Murakami novels. I had this idea, like an exercise, to write my own Murakami novel. I didn’t know I was going to write something that was at all personal or meaningful to me. I was just going to write something a little bit surreal and a little bit wacky and see what happened.” And in-between putting herself into the thoughts of the characters and her Murakami exercise emerges a book about someone trying to find happiness.
Though fable-like in its telling, The Red Car is accessible in the feelings it evokes. It’s a book about finding happiness. It’s a coming-of-age novel for all ages, for people, especially women, who are sorting their lives out whenever they need to. “People look at me sort of confused when I say it’s a coming-of age book, because people think of coming-of-age as what happens at 18 or 19, but it feels like that’s what’s happening with this character,” Dermansky says. “Maybe coming of age is happening a bit later. Maybe people find themselves a bit later. It’s funny because you’re not supposed to come of age in your 30s but maybe people are allowed to keep reinventing themselves. Maybe it doesn’t stop.”
Steph Opitz is a writer living in Minnesota. Her reviews have appeared in Marie Claire, Departures, Garden & Gun, and elsewhere.