Review of ‘Every Last One’ by Anna Quindlen

Every Last One

By Anna Quindlen

Random House, 2010

She’s done it again.  In Every last One best-selling author Anna Quindlen offers yet another poignant mixture of panache and pathos as she traces the effects of seemingly inconsequential choices and actions that turn out to be life-altering.

Every may get off to a slow start, but its gathers steam quickly as we’re introduced to Mary Beth Latham, husband Glen and their three incredibly average teenage kids: popular over-achiever Alex; introverted, morose Max; and independent, free-spirited Ruby.  Neck-deep in “the usual” – proms, soccer games, high school angst, sibling rivalries, curfew, family dinners and sibling spats – this “typical” suburban family turns out to be anything but.  Just about the time the reader starts feeling lost in the dull monochrome of what could be the average American family – as in, ‘been there, done that’ – Quindlen tosses us a curve.  A big one.  The pacing is perfect.

The rest of this remarkable book focuses on how Mary Beth and her girlfriends such as no-nonsense Nancy and “English rose” Olivia help her cope with an immense tragedy. We also discover what’s eating Mary Beth’s former friend, Deborah.  Like the consummate storyteller she is, Quindlen weaves a rich tapestry of roles and relationships that are almost excruciatingly authentic.

Besides the carefully crafted plot and three-dimensional characters, the dormant strength of Every Last One – a phrase uttered by a police officer on one tragic New Year’s Eve – lies in its “every person” appeal.  Readers may feel they know the Lathams.  Maybe this ophthalmologist’s family is their neighbor, colleague, coach, or their kids’ favorite hang-out site.  Or maybe it’s them.  This complicated, beautifully drawn story of struggle, survival, unspeakable loss and love is weft as tight as a Persian rug, and is just as exquisite.  I read the LP version (385 pages) cover to cover in a day and a half.

Full of unexpected twists and turns, Every Last One is another stellar work of fiction like the kind we’ve come to expect from Quindlen.  Much of its strength lies in sturdy characters, believable dialogue and its subtle message of hope.  This one’s a keeper.

***

Coming soon: A review of the autobiographical Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton, by Mary McDonough.

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‘Once Upon a Story…’ Part 3 of 3

The best stories are often book-ended by Once upon a time and They lived happily ever after.  Once upon a time there were Three Bears, who lived together in a house of their own, in a wood.  Once upon a time there was an old sow with three little pigs…. A vain emperor who loved beautiful clothes … an east wind blew through Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane.  Once upon a time Gepetto found a piece of wood, Tom and Huck a robber’s treasure, Aladdin a lamp.  A wisp of a happy ending waltzes in the wind.

That’s it, isn’t it?  What most of us want, deep-down inside?  Isn’t that why something stirs within us when a great and noble struggle winds up with a superlative conclusion in which Good triumphs over Evil?  Aslan vanquishes the White Witch.  Kidnapped through the machinations of his Uncle Ebenezer, David Balfour claims his inheritance with the help Alan Breck Stewart.  Dorothy Gale discovers “there’s no place like home.”

Don’t such endings make you want to pump your fist in the air, stand up and cheer?  “All is well” endings to wonderful stories bring sighs of satisfaction.  Where does that come from?  And what about the stories that end with “all is not so well”?  Capulets and Montagues take pot shots at each other from opposite sides of the Verona tracks; Romeo and Juliet are caught in the cross-hairs.  Anna Karenina leaves her husband for the dashing Count Vronsky and a train.   Quasimodo grieves himself to death, clinging to the dead body of his beloved gypsy girl, La Esmeralda.  Don’t they leave us feeling a little… bereft?  Like our map has been misplaced, or we wandered into the wrong tale?

What is it within you and me that sighs when we read or hear these stories?   It’s almost as if “happily ever after” is a yearning etched into the wet cement of our souls at birth.  And maybe it is.  Have you ever wondered why?  Have you gone ahead of your story?

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Excerpted from chapter 1 of Once Upon a Story, by yours truly.

‘Once Upon a Story…’ Part 2 of 3

“But I’ve gone ahead of my story. Denys would have hated that.

 Denys loved to hear a story told well.”

– Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

It’s true, isn’t it?  Most of us love a story told well.  Especially a love story.  Elizabeth Bennet overcomes her prejudice and Mr. Darcy his pride to find true love.    Sydney Carton swaps identities so Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay can live happily ever after.  “Plain Jane” governess Eyre finds an unexpected soul mate in the brooding, taciturn Mr. Rochester.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guishar Antipova are united, lost, reunited and lose each other again during the Bolshevik Revolution and lots of snow.

Stories draw us in with danger, intrigue, suspense and the whisper of a happy ending.  A good story opens with all is well, moves into all is not well, and ends with an echo of hope.  Good is being overrun.  Evil, treachery or loss are on the loose. Sometimes all three.  Battle, sacrifice, hardship, courage, and rescue gallop across pages and plots.

A good story includes a dashing hero or an intrepid heroine who must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win freedom, homeland or true love. The Black Riders hunt Frodo with deadly intent.  Mordred plots King Arthur’s demise.  Farmer Brown chases Peter into a shed and Captain Hook loads Peter’s cup with poison. Will the beautiful heroine or gallant hero overcome?  Is all hope lost?  Will rescue arrive in time?  How will these stories unfold, stories that begin with lines like:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. …

            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …

            Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.

            Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.

            Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls… Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.

            In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. …

Excerpted from Once Upon a Story…, which is looking for a reputable publisher.  Stay tuned for the rest of the chapter…

‘Once Upon a Story…” Part 1 of 3

Once upon a time, a king loved a princess.  Their love was epic.  Pure and unstained.  Then evil entered, followed by betrayal. The lovers were torn asunder, the princess taken into captivity.  The king sent his son to launch a daring raid into enemy territory to rescue his beloved: You.  
A fresh look at the greatest love story that ever bloomed, Once Upon a Story… mines nuggets of eternal truth from some well-loved stories, reminding us that we were created for relationship, live in a war zone, have an enemy, and that God’s love makes it possible for our stories to end with, “and they all lived happily ever after.”
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Once Upon a Story is looking for a reputable publisher.  Excerpts from chapter 1 are coming up soon.  Keep an eye out!