Anna Quindlen has a devoted following of readers, not only because of five best-selling novels, but also books of nonfiction, columns in both the New York Times and Newsweek, and movies based on her fiction. While she has received a Pulitzer as a journalist, perhaps more telling of her talent is the fact that she has appeared in high school literature anthologies.
A gifted writer, she uses prose that seems deceptively simple, the sort of writing we all think we could do, if only we had the time and a quiet place. But her stories are swans in ponds; we don’t see the feet paddling.
Her most recent novel Every Last One, like her others, gains weight from a social issue theme; Black and Blue, for example, dealt with family violence. Every Last One is a story about a very ordinary family caught up in an unimaginable tragedy and the grieving/healing process that follows.
Landscape business owner Mary Beth Latham, who is reasonably happily married to by-the-numbers ophthalmologist Glen, tells the story. She is mother of three teenagers: talented free-spirit Ruby; and younger twins, popular athlete Alex and troubled Max.
The kids are the ones we might have, lovable but flawed, and no one knows of their loveliness and defects more than their parents. Mary Beth and Glen, too, have a loving but imperfect relationship that resonates with the reader.
This writer, a gardener, has a soft spot in his heart for the narrator-landscaper. At one point in the novel she feels irritation for a builder who had bulldozed trees from a construction site that she is landscaping; now the owner wants an instant replacement. “What I love about my work,” she reflected, “and I suppose my life, is the slow inevitable progression. I count my years in small bushes grown broad, climbing vines that snake over fences and roofs, saplings that are spreading trees.”
The violence, when it occurs, seems real in its surrealism, creating a distortion in time and thought. And as in real life, the sadness is not so much in the event, but in the mopping up afterwards.
The resolution of the novel is satisfying, but like the story and life itself, less than perfect.
Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen (299 pages) Random House, 2010.