[28 June 2010]
Mary Beth Latham is a devoted mother of three, a loving wife, the successful owner of a Vermont landscaping business who worries a bit, but not too much, about her employees. “This is my life,” she announces in the very first sentence of Every Last One, a novel by Anna Quindlen (Rise and Shine, One True Thing) that’s part domestic drama, part domestic hell. It’s an ambitious book that sets out to talk about important things using big ingredients—family, love, death, redemption.
The pitfalls are many. To her credit, the author avoids the obvious snares and manages to tell a compelling, emotionally charged story.
When “This is my life” serves as a book’s opening salvo, it’s a safe bet that that life is going to change. Quindlen takes her time getting to that point, though. First she introduces a vast array of characters: Mary Beth’s husband Glen, children Ruby and Alex and Max (these last two fraternal twins), Ruby’s friends Sarah and Rachel and Kiernan, Mary Beth’s friends Alice and Nancy and Olivia. Mothers and in-laws and employees all make their appearances, as do customers and faces around town.
It’s a potentially bewildering array of white-bread names that perhaps unintentionally reveals how often writers rely on just a handful of characters. In this book, as in life, there is an abundance of peripheral faces and names that crop up depending on the circumstances. For the most part, these characters stay clear in the reader’s head, largely because the author presents them in identifiable groups: as families, groups of friends, husband’s associates and so on.
Fully half the book is taken up with delineating the contours of Mary Beth’s life, and what prevents this from becoming a crashing bore are both the red herrings sprinkled throughout—is this the main concern of the novel? Or is it that?—and the wry tone of the narration itself. Breezing along in present tense, Mary Beth’s voice carries a faint world-weariness that can flip-flop between good-natured and exasperated. About daughter Ruby she says, “She is not vegetarian this year,” a simple statement that suggests much.
Later, when the often contentious Ruby speaks to her civilly, Mary Beth worries that “it’s as though she has outgrown the need to oppose me, which I fear is only a few beats away from outgrowing me entirely.” Concerning husband Glen, she allows a flicker of bitterness to shine through. “This is what it is like to be married,” she tells us, “conversations in which no one actually speaks.” To a fellow mother complaining about not having a life, she yearns to say: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”
By midway through, all this pithiness threatens to grow wearisome—“It’s only before the realities set in that we can treasure our delusions”—and the reader is wondering when the drama is going to kick into high gear. That question gets answered in a hurry. In what the book jacket copy refers to as “a shocking act of violence,” Mary Beth finds her life radically altered and the assumptions underlying it called into question.
It’s here that the cleverness of the structure reveals itself, for if these events had happened sooner, the changes they portend would have felt less significant. Quindlen’s careful plotting draws the reader’s unwitting attention to several decisive plot threads, providing information whose significance is not clear until later.
Once I attended a small circus in Boston, sitting well up in the bleachers, supervising a group of juvenile offenders who had been allowed to go on this outing. The lights dimmed in the big tent, and a long-haired blond man in sequins stepped into the spotlight, connected to a harness whose ropes trailed straight up to the beams overhead. As we watched, the flamboyant acrobat rose over our heads, the spotlight remaining tight on his face and chest. At the apex, he elaborately shrugged out of his harness and opened his arms wide. Somehow, he didn’t fall. Then the lights came up: he was standing on an elephant.
The crowd gasped, and even my juvenile delinquent charges were impressed enough to hold up their lighters. The elephant sat on its haunches, front legs upraised, while the brave young man stood on the crown of its skull. The amazing thing is, the elephant had been led into the tent and placed in position and we hadn’t even noticed.
This book is something like that. The question, then, becomes: what happens after the elephant shows up? For what it’s worth, I don’t remember anything else about that circus. Not a thing.
Quindlen’s book isn’t quite so overbalanced, but the fact remains that once “this is my life” becomes “that was my life,” a new story takes over, and not all of it is compelling, partly because we can guess some of the necessary milestones that will be touched upon. Despite this, Every Last One remains a compelling read throughout, and one that avoids mawkishness and simplistic nods to “redemption”, that literary synonym for “happy ever after”. For that restraint alone, Quindlen is to be commended.