Note:

This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

My first introduction to Quindlen was a book club read called Good Dog. Stay. What a great club choice because the book was like a picture book, with a total of 95 pages. I saw this new one from her, added it to my queue on goodreads and then my BFF AudreyPodrey sent me a note on goodreads and said 'we should get together and read this one'. So I did. Ann - you have to read it before you read the spoiler so we can get together and discuss. :)

***Spoiler Alert***

Just a note about spoiler alerts on goodreads.com - I always check the checkbox for my reviews so that it hides it. Apparently, if you get the newsletter and I'm your friend, it doesn't hide the review. Someone was going to unfriend me (which is fine; I don't get offended by that) because my entire review, with spoilers, would show up on her email. Why you just don't read it, I don't understand, but maybe some folks can't avoid it.

But the other part is this: when I read comments and see the link to read the comment WITH the spoiler, I am expecting to see, um, SPOILERS. But more often than not, I read this: "I don't want to give away the plot but it's shocking..." or "it was just tragic..." or something to that effect.

In the instance of this book, I get it: one would have to do that. There is something tragic. But if you continue to read THIS post, I'm giving away the whole fricking plot. I don't actually call these "reviews"...in fact, I'm going to rename the ones I've been doing in the latter years to "book post-mortem", since it's more of my own analysis of the book, sometimes in great detail, sometimes not.

So now, on to the book...

As I read from many others, the book starts off very mundane. I really wasn't sure where Quindlen was going with it. I wasn't completely turned off but it was very Seinfeld-like: a book about nothing.

The "nothing" being a description about her life: Mary Beth Latham is a mother of three children: Ruby, a beautiful, perfect -- and secretly the favorite - daughter, who is about to graduate high school; Max, a brooding, possibly depressed, introverted middle-schooler, who is one half of a fraternal twin; and Alex, another perfect child, who is the star athlete in every sport (basketball, lacrosse, soccer), out-going, and the other half of the fraternal twin.

Her husband, Glen, is an ophthalmologist. She owns her own landscaping business and we read about how she worries about the Mexican workers she hires (illegally) and doesn't pay them well, but doesn't pay them extra or advances them because she doesn't want to be taken advantage of. It's a strange dialogue - a supposedly good-hearted woman who is supposed to be a strong business woman too? These pieces in the book seem oddly placed and make no sense but there are tidbits like this throughout.

Things that bother me with a lot of novels are the "perfect"ness. In this case, the perfect children. Ruby is the most perfect girl. She writes poetry and novels perfectly. Her teachers love her. Her friends adore her. She dotes, cares deeply in an extraordinary way for any teenager, for a friend Rachel, who seems to be described as a teen on her way to an eating disorder and a life with bad men (according to Mary Beth).

Ruby is just so in touch with herself that it's just unreal and, while I liked her fine, it's just a ridiculous, stereotypical notion that I've seen too many times in novels.

And then we see it again in Alex. An eighth-grader who is just the star athlete in every sport he is in. He makes the athlete of the week in the town (?) paper nearly every week. And, at least according to Mary Beth, no one seems to envy him. We do not meet a single person who hates Alex. And he's great with kids too, as we find when he becomes a camp counselor to 9 year old boys. Just perfection.

The one character with interest is Max. He mumbles. His hair is long. His teachers complain about how he isn't engaged in school, in life. She worries about him but then moves on to the next obscure thought in her head. Finally, Max sees a counselor (who is also the perfect counselor because he breaks through to Max, and eventually, to Alex) and the counselor decides to meet with Glen and Mary Beth about Max's concerns. I love this part of the book, which is one of very few parts.

The doctor tells them that Max feels overshadowed by his twin (perfect) brother Alex. Glen argues that they do not ever try to make Max feel any inferior than Alex. And Mary Beth finally breaks down all the ruminations that goes on and on and on in the first 100 pages of this book:
"I think he feels like he doesn't belong anywhere anymore," I say, and shocked and dismayed at my own words, I begin to cry. [Side note, so do I.] "I love him so much. I don't want him to feel bad about who he is."
I love these words because I can't tell you how many times in my life I have felt like this. Being an only child, having to move so many times...forget the context of this novel, these words spoke to me. It's this family I have now that I feel I belong.

The doctor goes on about how Max says he knows his parents value him (deep for an 8th grader, don't you think? Again, stereotypical writing in novels...but whatever. Despite the storyline, this woman writes well.) but how the world values him is different and _that's_ what matters.

Mary Beth asks the doctor: did he tell you he plays the drums?
"Yes, he did. "And that he's an ace computer programmer. But you should know that at some level he doesn't feel that his gifts are important. And he doesn't feel he's entitled to his negative feelings. That's another reason he doesn't feel comfortable discussing them with you. He says that he has a great home, great parents, great siblings, and that he should be happy because of all that. In some ways, he's as distressed by what he sees as the wrongness of his emotions as by anything else. I think one of the phrases he kept repeating was 'I just can't help it.'"
Wow. Now we are getting somewhere. I loved this. I could relate. I thought of my own kids - remind myself to think of this as a mother.

But unfortunately, this is not where the book would go. And it really wasn't a surprise. There was a build up of something bad that would happen, even though it didn't seem appropriate, the way this novel was going.

Ruby, the perfectly confident-in-her-ways Ruby, had been dating Kiernan, who was a lifelong friend of the family. Kiernan practically lived with the Lathams. Ruby and Kiernan dated for most of their tween-to-teen years and Kiernan appeared to be obsessively in love with Ruby. But now, Ruby was ready to let Kiernan go. And she did. And Kiernan was beyond broken-hearted.

It was pretty obvious that Kiernan came from a broken home with a crazy mom. And about midway through the book, Kiernan murdered not just Ruby (this seemed somewhat obvious but again, I didn't really want to see this happen), but Max, Glen and attempted to kill Mary Beth. Alex was on a skiing trip in Colorado when all of this took place.

So the second half of the book becomes ruminations of Mary Beth's mind over the deaths of her family, except Alex, and how they would've been the people they could've been, had they lived.  There is virtually no relationship with Alex. She's like a zombie and it reads this way too.

Alex spends more time with his best friend's family. She inherits a butt load of money from life insurance. She lets her business go. She does nothing. She ends a friendship with a woman who was her best friend through the first half of the book but inexplicably, we have an accusation of an affair with Kiernan's father (Mary Beth) from long ago...and now, Mary Beth thinks: three sexual encounters causes my perfect life to become this tragic?

It's just a lost cause...what was the point of the book? Not that I think there should be a point to any novel. I'm just looking for a story to be told. But this story was bizarre to me.

Don't get me wrong. I cried a lot throughout. I couldn't help it. This woman writes well. But I just didn't understand what the story was supposed to be. A build up of a perfect, mundane life that kills the family off almost entirely, then a mundane recount of a life that could've been?  It didn't work for me.

What I found disturbing of it all was, as the police comb through the house, looking for survivors, Mary Beth, who is on the bedroom floor -- Kiernan had stabbed her in the shoulder, she fell to the floor and was stuck between the side of her bed and a wall -- overhears two of them  as one says 'are they all dead?' and the other replies 'every last one.' And hence, the title of the book.

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