PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Domestic Drama Meets Domestic Hell in Anna Quindlen's 'Every Last One'

Anna Quindlen

Enjoy the acrobat in this story... but watch out for the elephant.

Every Last One

Publisher: Random House
Length: 299 pages
Author: Anna Quindlen
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-04

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.