AS singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell suggests, life is one long string of events - of losses - in which we ``don't know what [we] got 'til it's gone.'' So it is for Louise, the narrator in Constance Schraft's first novel, ``Instead of You.'' When Louise's older sister, Charlotte - her best friend and longest rival - is killed in a car accident, ``Lou'' is devastated. She offers to take her sister's place, to be a support to Charlotte's husband, Sam, and a mother to her two girls. At last she can see what it's like to be the woman she always admired, envied, and strove to please.
``Instead of You'' is a touching tale of loss and gain, love and rivalry, and of intricate and comic relationships that hold families together and drive them apart.
Schraft is a skilled storyteller who reveals the characters through their actions and conversations, rather than psychological states.
The narrator is witty and honest, neither self-absorbed nor introspective. Schraft's prose is lean, straightforward, and strong - ironically, the tone is at times more confident than the narrator herself.
The story opens on a hot summer day at a horse track. Between races Lou's sister Charlotte rushes to the hospital to bear her second daughter.
Charlotte is everything Lou is not: confident, married, suburban, wealthy, courageous, and the mother of two daughters. Lou has always lived in the shadow of Charlotte, she tells us, wishing to be more like her, trying to win her praise, loving her, and resenting her.
Lou lives in a tiny Manhattan apartment. She lacks ambition and she lacks resolve. She is a musician who teaches but would rather perform. Lou's boyfriend, a would-be screenwriter named Richard, is the center of her social life until he becomes successful and moves to California, leaving her behind.
Everything in Lou's life changes when she receives news that Charlotte has been killed in an auto accident. As Lou and her mother clean Charlotte's house, trying to put the pieces back together, Lou's mother says it's time to find someone to take over for Charlotte.
```We'll have to go to an agency,' my mother went on, picking up her sponge and scrubbing a stubborn spot.
...``Maybe I can do it,'' I said.
My mother stopped her cleaning and stared at me. I was as surprised as she. But I didn't take it back. ``For a little while,'' I went on. ``Until we find the right person. Until we get our bearings.'''
Lou doesn't know she will find her own bearings. She moves into the suburban house with her sister's husband and Charlotte's two daughters. Annie is in junior high and Sara in elementary school.
As she raises the girls, Lou relives childhood memories of growing up with Charlotte - loving her and competing with her. Schraft deftly weaves in memories, telling the tales of two pairs of sisters.
Charlotte was the pretty daughter who smelled of her mother's perfume and kept the Lord's Prayer above her bed; Lou slept beneath the Declaration of Independence.
Lou comes to see Charlotte more realistically. Older children face difficulties that younger siblings don't. Sam, the father, is unable to communicate with his girls, though we are not sure if this is due to his nature or his overwhelming grief. He keeps up with his older daughter by prying open and reading her diary.
Losing Charlotte doesn't free Lou of comparisons, it magnifies them, and raises the stakes. Not only did Lou not measure up to being the perfect sister, she isn't even a good mother. Everyone in the family - especially the girls - reinforce this.
Worse yet, Lou can't decide what to do about the two men she is dating, Richard in California and sweet, hometown Fred. The story weakens here: Lou is so emotionally detached from both males that she comes across as cold, even cruel. Schraft takes better care, and draws more believable relationships among her women characters.
Lou comes to realize that what she needs to do is fit her own expectations, not those of her sister. The problem is that Lou doesn't have any. She needs resolve. This is what she is forced to gain from the loss of Charlotte.
Throughout the story, Schraft tells of relationships between other family members. Lou's grandfather and great-aunt boss each other around but couldn't live without one another. Lou's father, a retired fireman, doesn't know what to do with so much time and leaves his wife. Charlotte's husband, begins to date Charlotte's best friend and neighbor, whom Lou despises. It's the stuff of families - surprises, disappointments, commitment, and forgiveness.
Finally Lou makes a decision - albeit ambiguous - about what direction to take with her life. Some readers may be left unsatisfied by the ambiguity, but it fits Lou's character.
People change incrementally. Life, too, lacks neatly tied-up endings. It's not only a string of lessons learned from losses, but lessons forgotten, ignored, avoided, and repeated. And if we live right, we know what we have when we still have it.