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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

"Every Last One" is the first Anna Quindlen novel I've read, and I can see why her novels have such wide appeal. I found Quindlen's writing so evocative and rich that it was as if I was experiencing Mary Beth's emotions as my own. This is a very deeply felt, genuine novel, the kind that you find yourself thinking about even after you've put it down.

This is something of a two-part novel. Quindlen devotes the first half to describing the everyday life of Mary Beth Latham, a wife and mother of three. Mary Beth is the kind of character with whom I think a lot of mothers can identify. Though she owns her own business and has an active social life, Mary Beth seems to struggle with defining herself outside of her role as a wife and mother. Her seemingly perfect life has left Mary Beth feeling restless, as if she is looking for something--but even she doesn't know exactly for what she is looking. As a result, she doesn't always acknowledge what she has before her, not until it is too late.

She's an imperfect character. There are times when I found myself questioning her actions, when I was pretty disgusted with the parenting decisions she made. I felt that this was deliberate on the part of the author. As Mary Beth herself reflects in the novel, it's easy to sit back and judge the parenting skills of others. Yet, how many parents really have a grasp of the reality of their children's situations--and how many would prefer to not really know? Mary Beth is a character who is blinded by her desire to create a perfect life for her children, a desire that leads her to gloss over things and to be content with what seems to lay on the surface. She is aware that there are deeper problems, but she is also convinced that they will all work out all right in the end, that the world she has created is the world that actually exists.

It is only when a horrifying tragedy strikes her family that it becomes clear just how much of what's been going on Mary Beth has overlooked. Preoccupied with worries about her son Max and his depression, she fails to recognize the disaster looming on the horizon. There were aspects of this disaster that were surprising to me, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. Is Mary Beth really so blind, or is it that the clues that Quindlen drops are a little too heavy? Mary Beth does acknowledge later in the novel that she didn't really want to see what was before her. Though I really liked the novel and felt that it was well-written, this was the one part that didn't sit entirely well with me. Perhaps it is easier as a reader to see some of the clear signals that Mary Beth missed, but I found it a little difficult to understand her failure to act.

However, I did find the depiction of Mary Beth's grief to be very realistic. In fact, her grief is a little characteristic of how her life has been up to that point. She has put on a facade, and it leads to her becoming rather alienated from others. The question I found most interesting at this point was one that Mary Ellen explores at length: How can things return to normal? There is no such thing as normal for her anymore. People speak of moving on after a tragedy, but is it really ever possible to do so? Mary Beth's experiences alter her fundamentally, as they would anyone. Just as the book is almost like two separate installments, Mary Beth herself is like two different people: the woman who existed before the tragedy and the women who is left afterward.

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