Posted by: Jeanie F | August 1, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

I’ve been whipping through the family drama’s this week and becoming increasingly thankful that the most exciting thing that’s happened to me, personally, is an all-time high number of hits on this blog. It seems that when things happen to families, at least in fiction, it ain’t gonna be good.

Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Every Last Thing, is no exception. I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Quindlen’s writing – when it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s bad, it’s just mundane, not terrible. Every Last Thing is an example of Quindlen at her best in that, here, she has done a fine job of keeping multiple balls in the air quite successfully. The story will catch you off guard many times – just as you think you know where it’s headed, it will take you in a different direction.

Briefly, this is the story of Mary Beth Latham and her family: husband Glen, daughter Ruby, entering her senior year in high school, and twins Max and Alex, ready to begin high school. The family is the hub for a number of the children’s friends including Ruby’s boyfriend, Kiernan. Ruby has recovered from a brief bout of anorexic-like behavior, Max has begun to show signs of depression and anxiety. Alex seems to troop along happily engaged in a wide variety of athletics. Mary Beth and Glen have a friendly relationship that is disconnected in the way that busy parents’ marriages often are. They pull together when it’s required. 

However, there is more going on here than immediately meets the eye. First, there’s the happy little family scenario in which Quindlen manages to portray the realities of happy families – scratch the surface of even the happiest, and you’ll find some dark secret corners. It doesn’t have to be anything more dramatic than the nagging concerns that all parents have about their teenage children, or the gradual cooling of sexual tension between parents, but we see in Mary Beth the common tendency to cover these concerns with the trappings of complacency. She’s not unaware of this, as she tells us herself, “It’s only before the realities set in that we can treasure our delusions.”

We get the occasional peek into her own psychological landscape. In one particularly poignant passage she reflects on the fact that she sometimes finds herself “crying for reasons that are overwhelming and mysterious.” She has many blessings – “In the way of women my age, I increasingly count my blessings aloud, as though if other people acknowledge them they’ll be enough . . .” – and the problems with children and spouse that lurk below the surface are not the cause of her tears.

If I were pressed, I would have to say that they are the symptom of some great loneliness, as free-floating and untethered to everyday life as a tornado is to the usual weather . . . If anyone asks how things are, I say what we all say: fine, good, great, terrific, wonderful. Even among women, we don’t speak of this.

The cracks in the Latham family’s prosaic exterior are no greater and no less than most of us experience from time to time, so it is especially shocking when these cracks lead to great tragedy. We can go back and reconstruct what happened and why. The real trick that Quindlen has pulled off is to show us in advance how many unremarkable problems could potentially explode into violence, many of which turn out to be red herrings. We know from the jacket cover that something bad is going to happen, so it’s natural as we read to try to determine just what it will be. I won’t say more about this – you’ll discover it for yourself.

If you pick up this book, I’d recommend that you keep a box of tissue close by. You’ll need it and not only for the tragedy that ensues. There are moments so touching, so filled with love and salvation, that you’ll find yourself deeply moved.

Grade: A


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog again! I appreciated your comments – I always love personal insight and experience, and your story about what happened to you for carrying around a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at school – in hindsight kind of hilarious, but I would have been FUMING at the time if it happened to me. Still, it happens in schools every day – kids in more conservative areas who bring books like Harry Potter or Twilight, even, can get thrown out … thrown out for READING. It just seems so antithetical. I mean school + reading = good, right? So you’re discouraging the kids who are actually showing an interest? Eesh.

  2. FYI – When I closed with “so you’re discouraging kids who are actually showing an interest,” I was apostrophizing to the grander, societal “You” – not you personally. 😉

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