EVERY LAST ONE
By Anna Quindlen
Random House, $26, 299 pages
Should she have done something about it? Could she have done something about it? These are questions that arise in the mind of Mary Beth Latham in the wrenching aftermath of a disaster that takes place halfway through Anna Quindlen’s new novel, “Every Last One.”
“Every Last One” explores the territory so well developed by Miss Quindlen in her previous, highly successful novels: the ordinary, the mundane, the universal thoughts and emotions of middle-class American women and their relationships to family and friends. She does it well, with sensitivity and truth. The new novel is no exception.
Mary Beth Latham, who tells the story in her own voice, leads a blessed life: her marriage to Glen, a successful ophthalmologist is a good one; she dotes on and worries about her three teenage children; she is happy in her job as a landscaper in and around the New England town where she lives; her house is a warm home, filled with life and love. Not everything is perfect, of course: The children squabble, marriage is no longer romantic and exciting. “Laundry is my life,” she thinks, “and meals, and school meetings and games and recitals.” All in all, not a bad life.
Mary Beth was a freelance copy editor until she married. “[T]hen [she] had three children, then [she] took a master gardening class, then [she] started a landscaping business.” “I love to make things grow,” she notes, “to deadhead the foxglove and watch it improbably have a second flowering, to dig up a big bristly clump of old day lilies in the fall and break it up into five or six smaller plants and then have each of them burst into bloom the following summer.”
Yet, “I feel as if I’m watching my life. I feel as if I’m not in my life.” She has no explanation for her feelings nor the secret, unfathomable tears she sheds. “In the way of women my age, I increasingly count my blessings aloud, as though if other people acknowledge them they’ll be enough: three wonderful children, a long and happy marriage, a good home, pleasurable work. And if below the surface I sense that one child is poised to flee and another is miserable, that my husband and I trade public pleasantries and private minutiae, that my work depends on the labor of men who think I’m cheating them - none of that is to be dwelled on.”
The children are 17-year-old Ruby “with her incandescent eyes and her dancing hands” and the 14-year-old twins, Alex and Max. Alex is tall and athletic, a star soccer player; Max is “shaggy-haired and splayfooted and long-limbed.” He plays the drums and shows all the symptoms of depression.
Like teenagers everywhere, Ruby has two selves, “the careful courteous young woman who spoke so sweetly to strangers and the person she let loose at home, where she was safe, where she could be spiky and harsh and uncertain and at sea.”
Since childhood, Ruby has had a friend, later a boyfriend, Kiernan. Kiernan has always been part of the family, sharing meals, hanging round with Max and following Ruby everywhere. Now, in the summer before her senior year of high school, Ruby no longer wants to be more than just friends, but Kiernan is obsessed. He stalks Ruby, secretly photographs her, sneaks into her bedroom and leaves love tokens, and sits on the Latham’s lawn wailing his despair late at night.
Mary Beth pities Kiernan, but does nothing about his misery. Ruby doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. Max, who has few friends, likes being with him. Nothing is said or done about his obsession.
On New Year’s Eve, the Lathams celebrate in age-appropriate ways. By New Year’s morning, however, their lives have been completely changed. I won’t tell you here what happens, as it comes as a shocking surprise to the reader, despite the subtle foreshadowing in the narrative.
The second half of “Every Last One” deals with Mary Beth’s attempt to come to terms with what is left of her shattered life. There are her close friends who help and support her. Her mother, whom she has held at arm’s length, becomes a wise counselor. But even in the depth of her unhappiness, Mary Beth discovers that “there are those moments when we experience physical happiness despite ourselves, before our minds remind us of the reasons we shouldn’t.”
What makes Anna Quindlen special is her talent in conveying real relationships between people, relationships that are true to the human condition and not based on the middle-class characteristics of her characters. Whether it is the pang mixed with pride a mother feels in watching her “babies” grow into adulthood, thereby leaving her encircling arms, or the doubt a woman feels about how she has treated the people she loves most, or the depth of friendships between women and even between young girls, there is always that grain of truth that resonates in the reader.
Miss Quindlen is a good storyteller and “Every Last One” is easy reading. The pace goes from the comfortable day to day, builds to a horrendous crescendo, then slowly evolves to an emotion-filled denouement.
There are lovely moments in the novel, as when Ruby is telling her mother about the butterfly effect: “How the beating of [the butterflies’] wings in Mexico could cause a breeze in our backyard.” Mary Beth analogizes how the “breast-fed baby became the confident adult. The toddler who listened to a bedtime story went on to a doctorate. We flapped our wings in our kitchens, and a wind blew through their futures.”
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.