Book Review: Every Last One

Book: Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

Date finished: 4/11/11

Review:
Question:
Every Last One is arguably your darkest novel since Black and Blue in 1998. What made you want to write about tragedy striking an ordinary family? Or was it a theme that first intrigued you?

And so begins an interview with author Anna Quindlen about her latest book, Every Last One, on Amazon.com. I routinely list Black and Blue as one of my favorite novels and to hear both it and this novel I so recently finished described as dark is a little intriguing. Why do I like the depressing? What is it about these two books that called me to them?

The answer is actually pretty easy: Anna Quindlen. I like the way she write, the way she sets off related thoughts in commas at the end of sentences, the musical cadence of her prose. I like it because it resembles the way I write and think, meaning I’ve either unconsciously copied her or like her writing style because she already speaks my language.

While I’m an Anna Quindlen fan, I didn’t get around to reading this book (which released last year, I believe until now). And while I knew it was out there, I had purposely kept myself from reading reviews or even digging too deeply into the plot. I wanted to be surprised, to let the story unfold in front of me, rather than knowing so much about what happens before I read it that the actual discovery process becomes null and anticlimactic.

All I knew was that this was the story of a family, a so-called happy family. A mom, dad, an almost-grown, free-spirited, soon-to-graduate daughter and fraternal twin boys who were as different as night and day. And somehow, from the very beginning, I knew something VERY BAD was going to happen. I just didn’t know when, and I always read with a sense of trepidation, waiting for that other shoe to drop, for the perfect family to become less so.

And it did. Everything crashed down around Mary Beth (the protagonist and mother in the story). And suddenly, everything she had loved (well, almost everything) was gone. Her worst fears (every last one of them) had been realized. Tragedy has struck her family and it didn’t matter that she was a good mother or that she had tried to prepare for every possibility that could happen to her family or the plans she had for them. Suddenly, through an act of violence that shocked me, most of her family is gone.

The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of that fateful night. With Mary Beth and her remaining child, Alex, you deal with grief, blame, suspicion, and the weight of blaming yourself for not having been enough. I grieved the loss of lives her children would never have and the loss of companionship Mary Beth lost when her husband was ripped from her life.

I thought this novel handled grief very well and very honestly. And if I’m drawn to Anna Quindlen’s “dark” novels, I think I know the reason why: they’re not really dark; they’re honest. Grief is a pain that ebbs and flows. You want to be strong for others and you want to fall apart. The silliest things remind you of your loved ones and your loss and you find tears pricking your eyes at the most inopportune moments. You find yourself hoping that maybe someday you’ll smell that perfume or see that item without a sob catching in your throat. You hope that someday, while the tears may never fully disappear, that you can manage to see the “ghosts” and meet them with a smile of remembrance.

In this novel, Quindlen honestly portrays the cycle of grief and how we all deal with it differently. Grief is a line in the sand, the moment when you learn who your real friends are, as Mary Beth does in this novel. It’s a sad novel, but it’s honest. And at the very end, hopeful. Because like Mary Beth, there are griefs we bear that we will never get over—and we shouldn’t—but we do hope to come through them at least somewhat intact, somewhat hopeful, but always remembering those you have loved.

In the end, this is a novel about grieving and learning that we are not the ones in control of everything. Sometimes, the plans we make disappear—sometimes silently; sometimes they are ripped from our lives. In the book, Mary Beth’s climactic moment (and I’m guessing a reference to the title) is when she declares that all of our fears, every last one of them, is really the same fear: the fear of death.

But that’s not really what this book said to me. It wasn’t about fear; it was about grief. It was about surviving when you are “the last one,” the one left behind when tragedy strikes, the one who has to continue to live when it feels like your heart has been buried with your loved one. It’s a loving note to every “last one,” a reminder that grief is real, true, and not something we have to hide.

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