Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Pulitzer Achievement

Anna Quindlen is known for her essay columns in The New York Times and Newsweek. Her novel Every Last One is a moving story of the death of a family, the consequences of misjudgment, and the quest for forgiveness. Mary Beth Latham is married to a doctor and has three children, all different, two almost perfect, one not so perfect, but all loved and cared for as well as a mother could care for her family in upper middle-class America. Quindlen is honest about the life they lead and she describes their suburban realties and how the kids and their parents act like she sees it every day: “Her period is late. He got suspended. Like a broadcast in another room, we mothers hear about some of this after the fact—in overhead calls or conversations at the kitchen table. The kids know we will keep quiet, not out of tact but out of shame. We know that our children are having sex, smoking pot, drinking beer, but it is easier to say nothing.” It’s a life I always felt apart from, because I worked hard.

There’s a lot about the family, but like many middle-aged women, Mary Beth has given up part of her dreams even as she found happiness in landscaping other people’s yards. “Ruby knows that I majored in English, and she once asked why I had not decided to be a writer myself. “I just found it way too hard,’ I’d said. She looked away.” She pays her migrant workers less than Americans would be paid, but she rationalizes that she’s helping out families in Mexico who are a lot better off having money flow to them from the US.

The kids expected to be overachievers, and in a way, that was their downfall. A boy who loves the daughter and is jilted by her and feels let down by the family moves into their garage, knows their habits, papers walls with their pictures over which he writes “Perfect Family” in red, and then murders them all, every last one. But he doesn’t fully succeed because Mary Beth and her son Alex survive, she because she’s knocked out and left for dead and him because he’s on a skiing vacation. After the deaths, we witness misery and grief and lives interrupted. Neighbors and family are giving and selfless, but they’re suffering. Mary Beth remembers a neighbor who lost a child and how she and her friends wondered how they survived. Now she muses, “One of the worst aspects of living now on the far shore is that across the chasm I can see my glib unknowing former self. I despise that woman, her foolish worries and her cheap sympathies.” Our suburban housewife is becoming wiser for her loss.

We begin to learn about Mary Beth’s grave mistake and how she somehow feels she failed them by having an affair and failed them by not recognizing the murderous mental state of Kiernen. One of the most painful scenes is her attendance at her daughter’s graduation, but her daughter is dead; the audience applauses loudly, a display of love and sympathy and respect in the wake of feeling like a piranha. She wonders about boxes and mementos and where they lie within her mother’s house in Florida or in the trash or at Goodwill and thinks she could ask her, but what difference would it make? “Whatever she did was fine. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s fine. Whatever you manage to do.” Expectations of life are now gone.

Both mother and son manage to get through the ordeal and create new lives for themselves in the same town in which they have always lived. At the end of the book, outside her new home, because she can and no one else is there to “think it strange, I call their names, one b one, into the silence. The silence is as big as the sky, and as I call to each of them it is as though the name is a bird, flying out over the trees and into the lowering afternoon.” She’s trying. “It’s all I know how to do now. This is my live. I am trying.” As the jacket cover says, “Ultimately, as rendered in Anna Quindlen’s mesmerizing prose, Every Last One is a novel about facing every last one of the things we fear the most, about finding ways to navigate a road we never intended to travel, and about living a life we never dreamed we’d have to live, but find ourselves brave enough to try.” This well-wrought book is Quindlen’s sixth novel, and she also wrote seven non-fiction books. She continues to be careful with her craft, as a Pulitzer Prize writer would.

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