Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
The action in Anna Quindlen’s elegant, moving new novel Every Last One takes its time coming; fully half the novel is dedicated to the delicate unspooling of the daily life of the Latham family: Mary Beth, her husband Glen, and their three teenage children, Ruby and her younger, fraternal twin brothers, Alex and Max.
The leisurely pace is not accidental. The reader must know the characters, be invested in their lives, to feel the full weight of the crucial event. (When the titular phrase ‘every last one’ is uttered, it is a heart-sinking moment.)
Anna Quindlen parses private life with a skill rivalling that of any contemporary writer; one suspects that skill is born as much from keen observation and long practice as natural talent. A former journalist who took up fiction writing full-time in 1995, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column ‘Public and Private’, and her impressive ‘Last Word’ column graced the final page of Newsweek magazine for nine years until announcing her semi-retirement in 2009.
Additionally, she has written five earlier novels, all bestsellers, including One True Thing, which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination when produced as a feature film in 1998.
Like Mary Beth, Quindlen has three children and a long marriage, and there is an authenticity and lightness to her writing that suggests it is a product of experience as much as invention. (A reporter’s habit that can’t be entirely abandoned, possibly.)
The Lathams live in a close-knit community in which it seems every child has played in every backyard – but not every bond has endured. Mary Beth was once best friends with Deborah, the mother of Ruby’s boyfriend Kiernan, but long-ago events caused an irreparable breach. Kiernan is spending more and more time at the Lathams’, and appears troubled, but Ruby is pulling away, and Mary Beth resists asking questions, having learned that the best way to find out what is going on in the lives of her children is to remain silent and alert.
Meanwhile, Max is sinking into a torpor from which his mother feels powerless to rescue him; he starts to see a therapist, but, with his mood failing to lift, Mary Beth’s anxiety intensifies. Like many mothers, she is the emotional heart of the family, perhaps subconsciously hoping that in fretting over her children, she is helping to protect them.
Quindlen writes ordinary, middle-class family life well. Mary Beth marvels at her daughter’s self-assured quirkiness while reflecting, with a mix of anguish and relief, on Ruby’s recent skirmish with an eating disorder. She yearns for some of Alex’s self-possession to rub off on his withdrawn brother. And she admires the relaxed approach to parenting of her husband, who tells her she is too involved in their children’s inner lives.
It all turns on a dime one evening, following a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Glen and Mary Beth’s close friends. Mary Beth wakes afterwards with a different life. With this, Quindlen poses questions that go to the heart of our existence: how much can one person survive, and when is it worth it to try? Quindlen’s mastery of the navigation of emotion makes the exploration of these questions a rewarding pastime.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Penguin