Tepid Tearjerker

Author: Anna Quindlen

Every Last One Cover There’s something uniquely cathartic about the tearjerker.  In book or movie form, we go into them knowing that they will be sad but still hoping for the best for the characters.  At least I do.  When I opened Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One I knew full well that it wasn’t going to be some mundane tale of suburban woe.  I was looking for those tears.

Every Last One follows, in the first person, the mid-life of Mary Beth Latham.  She has a husband, three kids, a nice house in a good neighborhood and a business she owns and loves.  For a good portion of the book we plod along with her through her days as she engages in a battle of wills with her 17-year-old daughter Ruby, worries over the depression of Max, one of her 14-year-old twin boys, delights in the accomplishments of the other, Alex, and sort of dismisses her husband as bland and boring.  She talks about her friends and neighbors, her landscaping company, her daughter’s boyfriend and the general business of living her life.  We know it can’t last, but it does, for quite some time.

In that time we get to know Mary Beth and her family.  Usually that would be a great thing – we want to know and invest in our tearjerker characters.  In this case we come to know that Mary Beth is fairly shallow, liking to brag about being a cool parent and how the kids’ friends are always at her house.  She gives them plenty of freedom to grow and experiment and is happy to be so trusted and trusting.  She has the usual complaints about her sassy teenagers, but clearly sees each of them as extraordinary (as does every parent, of course).  She seldom mentions her husband at all, and when she does it is without passion or tenderness.

Ruby, Max and Alex are all presented as caricature children.  Ruby is the outgoing, overachieving intellectual with a flair for style, a doting boyfriend and a pair of devoted lifelong friends.  Alex is the superstar athlete with personality to spare.  Max is the depressed nerd with few friends.

So we know the Lathams.  And when tragedy strikes, which it must, we should be devastated, as is Mary Beth.  And it is devastating, on an intellectual level.  We sort of understand what her pain must be like and we sympathize.  But somehow it never quite reached me.  I don’t know if that says more about me or the book – probably a little about both.

For me, the tragedy comes across as clinical and distant.  I never felt truly invested in Mary Beth or her family, more like someone reading about the events in a newspaper. Not that Quindlen lacks skill – her prose is excellent.  More like she spent more time crafting sentences than she did investing in her characterization.  I needed to like these people a whole lot more than I did in order to weep over their fictional miseries.

Perhaps the issue is in the first person narrative.  We only see events from Mary Beth’s point of view and as such, they are incomplete in some aspects and share too much in others.  I don’t want to know about her petty disputes with neighbors or her haughty disdain for her boring husband.  But I do want to know more about why her son is depressed and what goes on in his sessions with his therapist.  The combination of overshare on one hand and detail skimping on the other may be the primary culprit in distancing me from the events taking place.

Overall, Every Last One isn’t a bad book – it’s very well written – it just didn’t grab me, draw me in or really make me feel as much as the bare bones of the story would suggest.  I was disappointed – this tearjerker simply failed to make me weep.  2 ½ stars out of 5 and a recommendation only for devoted fans of Quindlen.

– S. Millinocket

Sue Millinocket
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