Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Every Last One" by Anna Quindlen

Published: 2010
Read: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Vermont town, modern time
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads
Website devoted to her work

I saw a review of the book in the Washington Post awhile ago and remember thinking, "this is just up my alley.  Tragedy occurs in the life of a regular mom which she has to survive."  I am reminded of the book, "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, where Maureen Corrigan identifies a sub genre called the female version of the extreme adventure story.  In fact, she says her thoughts about this genre began after reading Quindlen's 1998 novel, Black and Blue.  The protagonist of that book was an abused wife and mother who eventually runs from her husband but lives in mortal fear for the day he tracks them down.

As opposed to the male extreme adventure story made popular by Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm where men are in life-and-death situations, often against elements such as a mountain or the sea, Corrigan says the women in the female version are working just as hard to survive, but their settings are domestic.  Their struggles are internal - emotional and/or psychological.   I would say this book fits into Corrigan's sub genre.
"This is my life:  The alarm goes off at five-thirty with the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling me that there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas." 
With this first sentence, Quindlen thrusts us in the middle of Mary Beth Latham's busy life.  She is a wife of almost 20 years, a mother of three teenage children and has a successful landscaping business.  The spark has gone out of her marriage as depicted in the following quote:
"I can't quite recall, or evoke, that strange and powerful feeling that made me yearn to be with him every moment of every day, that made me think "till death do us part" sounded wonderful instead of simply like a very, very long time."
Her kids are her life - like me and most moms that I know.  She struggles with wanting intimacy with Ruby, her beautiful, independent seventeen year old daughter and with her fraternal twin boys, Alex and Max who are in middle school.   While Ruby is fine now, she had struggled with anorexia.  Alex is the athlete and popular one, while Max is the musician, quiet and depressed.  While reading the book, I was drawn into their lives with a pit in my stomach as I knew something really bad was going to happen to this family.  A family with issues, but what family doesn't?

NOTE: This book is helpful in my grief journey so the following contains spoilers.

Then "IT" happens.  With me, it was the suicide death of my seventeen year old son.  With Mary Beth, it was the nearly total disintegration of her family.  And of her.  The second half of the book is a story of survival.  Some of her thoughts brought me to tears because I can relate.  To her grief, her sorrow, her guilt, her struggle to cope, her emptiness.  

Meaningful quotes:
"One of the worst aspects of living now on the far shore is that across the chasm I can see my glib unknowing self.  I despise that woman, her foolish little worries and her cheap sympathies.  She knew nothing.  But I can't truly wish on her what I know now."
"My memories are booby-trapped."
"I have two selves now, too, the one that goes out into the world and says what sound like the right things and nods and listens and even sometimes smiles, and the real woman, who watches her in wonder, who is nothing but a wound, a wound that will not stop throbbing except when it is anesthetized.  I know what the world wants: It wants me to heal.  But to heal I would have to forget and if I forget, my family truly dies."
"It was not so much that I wanted to die; it was just that I could not bear the incessant feeling of being alive.  And then it occurred to me that I was already dead; that what was left behind was a carapace, like the shells of cicadas...I had been full, of creating children, of taking care, of tasks and plans and a big bright future, and now all that was left was a translucent skin of what had once been my life."
"The worst part are all the things they are missing.  All the things they won't get to have."
It has difficult to answer the question, "How are you?" from well-meaning friends.  Mary Beth's best friend comes to stay with her one weekend and wants to know.  Mary Beth can't answer her and thinks:
"Why should I share what no one wants to know?  Why should I listen to the words of those who know nothing?  I can predict what they will say:  It will get easier.  Lie.  You can handle this.  Lie.  Time heals.  Lie.  Time just passes. Slowly."
This is a book of a woman coping with a loss so great, it could drown her completely.  But because she has a son to look after, to care for, to live for, she will survive.  She must survive.  

I feel the same. 

Other books by Anna Quindlen
  • Black and Blue
  • One True Thing
  • Good Dog. Stay
  • How Reading Changed My Life


  1. This sounds like a great book. This is the first time I've visited your blog. I'm so sorry for your loss. There were several suicides in my graduating class and they were always incredibly difficult to face. I can't imagine what you're going through, but admire your proactive attitude in searching for a way to help you cope with your emotions.

  2. This is what I love about reading--you can find books that share in your experiences and help you realize you aren't alone.

    I am so so sorry to hear about your son. One of my friends, at the age of 24, committed suicide this summer. It's such a complete life changer and I'm so thankful to see how you are being proactive in this journey. Books are a great comfort and as you will is the blogging community. People are always here to support you and listen to you.

    I obviously haven't lost someone so immediate to suicide but I lost my mom 4 years ago to cancer and I know that the grieving process is a crazy one. One book that really helped me was CS Lewis' book called A Grief Observed that he wrote after his wife passed. It made me feel not as crazy in how I was thinking and feeling. Now I find myself drawn to books where the MC mother dies. I think it helps us to sort through our feelings!

  3. Jaime - I have heard about CS Lewis' book and have it on my wish list. Based on your recommendation, I will have to get it.

    I have two dear friends that have lost their mothers - one right before Christmas and one just last week. They were very close to their moms so I know they will be grieving for a long time. Do you have any other books that I could recommend to them?

  4. Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman -- A really good one and the only one aside from the CS Lewis one. I'm sure there are some good ones out there but I could only read a couple of grieving books. One thing I started was a memory book -- kind of like a scrapbook but I would take a picture or something else that reminded me of my mother and write up a little paragraph and put it on the page. I would tell a funny story that happened on a certain vacation or a concert ticket for a band that reminds me of my mother. One thing my stepdad did for my sister and I was had this woman make a blanket out of a bunch of our mom's tshirts and it was really lovely. I could see shirts that my mom had worn or ones that had her favorite team on them. Just a few ideas for them if they are like me and didn't want to read too many grieving books.