I have been sick this week and while flicking through the book library on my iPad came across Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. I have no recollection of buying this and no knowledge of plot or author. This is not unusual when I look through the 746, but in this case, it worked to the book’s advantage, as I went into it with no preconceptions and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Every Last One explores the impact of traumatic loss on an ordinary life.
Mary Beth Latham, the narrator of Every Last One has a stable and comfortable life. Her marriage to ophthalmologist Glen is solid, if unexciting and she has her own successful landscaping business.
The heart of her life is her three teenage children – 17-year-old Ruby is self-confident and individual, her acidic wit and sharp intelligence seem to be leading her to a career as a writer. 15-year-old twins Alex and Max have painted a line down the centre of their shared bedroom as their separate personalities start to evolve. Alex is a popular soccer star at school, a jock if you will, while Max is more introverted, preferring the solitary activities of computer programming and drumming to the team sports in which his brother excels. Max’s one friend is Ruby’s long term boyfriend Kiernan, a child from a troubled family, who spends more time with the Latham’s than he does in his own fractured home.
The Latham’s comfortable home is welcoming and warm, always bustling with kids and friends – a picture of middle-class contentment. However, there are hints that under the surface, things are not as perfect as they seem.
Mary Beth’s solid marriage, pleasant as it may be, seems to have slipped into something close to apathy.
I can’t quite recall, or evoke, that strange and powerful feeling that made me yearn to be with him every moment of every day, that made me think “till death do us part” sounded wonderful instead of simply like a very, very long time.
The Latham’s loved and nurtured children also have their own issues. Ruby is just coming through a brush with anorexia, while Max seems to be retreating further into his own shell, failing at school and isolating himself not only from his friends, but also from his own family. Moreover, what of Kiernan, the semi-adopted son who wants to be a bigger part of this family than appears healthy? He is struggling to come to terms with the fact that Ruby is growing away from him and he might no longer be part of the Latham’s inner circle.
Mary Beth herself has doubts about the validity of her perfect existence. She finds herself crying for no reason, unable to open up to her husband and unable to admit that the constant work of raising a family is not as fulfilling as she is told it should be. The constant need to seem happy in front of their friends and their wider community is taking its toll.
The preferred answer to the question “How are you?” is always “Fine,” and the answer to the question “How are the kids?” is supposed to be “Great!” That’s true even if the accurate answers would be “terrible” and “a mess.” I think it produces its own kind of desperation, especially for women, who yearn to be emotionally open.
Quindlen subtly conveys that inexplicable loneliness that can lie at the heart of even the most seemingly fulfilled life.
Hints of unease are sprinkled through the narrative. A large landscaping job that Mary Beth has just completed is vandalised and burglaries are on the rise, with many in the community installing intruder lighting.
However, the violence, when it comes, is not from any direction Mary Beth could have predicted. It would be unfair to reveal what happens to the Latham’s half way through the novel, safe to say that it is an act of catastrophic proportions that strikes at the very heart of everything Mary Beth holds dear.
What follows is a meditation on grief, loss and aftermath and it is here that Quindlen excels. She is good at conveying the life-altering pain of loss and the pressure on survivors of it to move on and to heal, even when that seems impossible.
It was not so much that I wanted to die; it was just that I could not bear the incessant feeling of being alive. And then it occurred to me that I was already dead; that what was left behind was a carapace, like the shells of cicadas…I had been full, of creating children, of taking care, of tasks and plans and a big bright future, and now all that was left was a translucent skin of what had once been my life.
Every Last One benefits from clever pacing and depth of characterisation. Quindlen has a real knack for capturing the essence of her protagonists, from the attractive free-spirited Ruby to the troubled but sensitive Max, who feels like he is living in his more successful twin brother’s shadow. Anyone with children will empathise with the worries and concerns that parenthood brings, but as Quindlen makes clear, sometimes your life can be upended in a way that you could never imagine.
At one point in the novel, Ruby explains chaos theory to her mother – how the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico could cause the breeze that floats over their own back yard. Mary Beth finds it a terrifying concept – shaken by the idea that ultimately, no matter what we do, we have little control over the direction of our own lives.
Sometimes I remind myself that I almost skipped the party, that I almost went to a different college, that the whim of a minute could have changed everything and everyone. Our lives, so settled, so specific, are built on happenstance
Every Last One isn’t without its issues – Mary Beth’s descriptions in the first half of the book can feel a little self-congratulatory at times and in reality the behaviour of certain characters would have been flagged as concerning much earlier on, but there is much to enjoy here, particularly Quindlen’s clear, readable prose and deft characterisation.
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 204
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!