Mary Beth Latham is a wife of two decades, a mother of three teenagers, and the owner of a landscaping business. She narrates Every Last One with a wry, self-conscious manner that won me over from the first page. Although I've read other reviews which say the novel's opening chapters focused only the boring minutia of family life, I found her relating the family's activities an interesting way of introducing them.
Her children were not so different from me and my own brothers -- three siblings somehow born into one family, yet unique to each other in almost every way. Her oldest, like myself, is a girl: Ruby, whose interests are largely literary. During the summer months of the novel, Ruby has triumphed over an early-adolescent eating disorder and blossomed into a young lady poised confidently on the cusp of adulthood. She travels to a college campus after her junior year and attends a writing conference designed for high school students. Alex, one of the twin boys, is heavily into sports. He plays soccer and rugby, among other things, and tends to rate himself based on how the school paper portrays his athletic skills. Confident and friendly, he is everything his twin, Max, is not. Max is the quiet one, the more socially isolated of the three. Although he excels at intricate video games and playing complicated drum riffs, Mary Beth and husband Glen worry about his being depressed. He eventually goes to see a therapist who comes highly recommended.
The Lathams are a family like many; unique in some ways and boring in their sameness in others. A unique-for-our-times characteristic is their having stayed together. In a culture where divorce has risen to a higher rate than long-term marriage, the Lathams are an oddity because they have weathered storms and emerged, still intact, on the other side. Again, how like my own family this is; although many more than half of my friends' parents were divorced at some point or another, my own parents have stayed together for forty years. Quindlen painted a portrait of an American family that is, for me, a truth. A family with problems, both individual and as a group, yet a family that cares deeply for each other -- and for themselves as a whole, together.
It's not that I expected Every Last One to end in a typical, fictional happy ending. Quindlen is known for her harsh, reality-based portrayals of difficult and even violent issues within families. She examined infidelity and cancer in 1994's One True Thing, spousal abuse within a police officer's marriage in 1998's Black and Blue, and 9/11 (although in a round-about way) in 2006's Rise and Shine. I've read each of Quindlen's previous novels, as well as some of her non-fiction pieces, so I expected turmoil of some kind to appear within the novel's pages. However, narrator Mary Beth's musings about problems with neighbors, the death of another family's child, and her own guilt at employing Hispanic workers for low wages did not in any way warn me of what was to come in Every Last One.
I won't spoil the novel for those who will go on to read it. I will say simply that what occurred more than 200 pages into the novel shocked me so thoroughly that I had no desire whatsoever to continue reading. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was angry with Quindlen. While that is a completely irrational feeling (yes, I fully realize that Anna Quindlen did not have me in mind when she wrote and published Every Last One), it was still my strong reaction. I felt physically ill after reading what happened; I abandoned the novel with a thump onto the floor beside my bed. Others have reacted differently. To hear their views, browse through the list below:
- NPR.org's Jane Ciabattari
- Bibliophile By the Sea
- Bookmarks Magazine
- Tethered Mommy
- USA Today
- NY Times
Quindlen is the author of a long-running New York Times column, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable Newsweek column. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her work in journalism, and her novel Black and Blue was an Oprah's Book Club pick.