Books

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
Amazon

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.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image