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Every Last One: A Novel
by Anna Quindlen
Paperback : 333 pages
20 clubs reading this now
29 members have read this book
Mary Beth Latham has built her life around her family, around caring for her three teenage children and preserving the rituals of their daily life. When one of her sons becomes depressed, Mary Beth focuses on him, only to be blindsided by a shocking act of violence. What happens afterward is a testament to the power of a woman’s love and determination, and to the invisible lines of hope and healing that connect one human being to another. 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.
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Editorial ReviewAn Interview with Author Anna Quindlen
Q: Every Last One is arguably your darkest novel since Black and Blue in 1998. What made you want to write about tragedy striking an ordinary family? Or was it a theme that first intrigued you?A: For a long time I've been thinking about illusions of security and control, especially in terms of motherhood. We think that if we do the right things, provide the right kind of care and oversight, we can keep our children safe from any perils. I suspect that's at the heart of the epidemic of so-called helicopter parenting we see today. But it's completely illusory. Sure, you can teach your teenager to drive carefully, but what difference does that make when a drunk driver roars through a stop sign? That sense of randomness, of the contrast between the care that parenthood requires and the dangers lurking in the world, sometimes right under our noses, is what I chose to explore here. I also wanted to illuminate the ways in which small events in our lives can combine to create unexpected results. I tried to make that clear through a combination of the details that make up the bedrock of a happy family life, and the occasional suggestion that the bedrock had cracks within it. It required a kind of subtlety and control that I haven't needed quite so much in my other novels. Q: What is it like to write about the devastating events like those encountered by the characters in Every Last One? Was your day to day experience of writing this novel different from your last novel, Rise and Shine? What was the biggest challenge for you, in writing Every Last One? A: I think everyone assumes I was in a funk during the creation of this novel, but it just wasn’t so. The explanation for that lies, I think, in the narrator, Mary Beth Latham. My experience as a novelist--this is my sixth--is that once you’ve nailed your protagonist, those around her come to life. And at some level she becomes your reason for being. I resonated with Mary Beth right away, felt that I knew her, which of course was critical since the book is written in the first person and is really her story. Most of the challenges were about how to make her real. It’s hard to write a novel about motherhood without creating either a plaster saint or a punching bag. I’m sick and tired of both those ways of looking at the very difficult, joyful and complicated task on which I’ve personally been laboring for the last quarter-century. Mary Beth is an ordinary woman, involved and distracted and smart and unaware, all of those things that simultaneously make up human behavior. That’s what I was after. And it’s what made me able to live in the world of this book, because I was living on her shoulder. Q: Motherhood is a central theme of many of your books. Why do you think the subject has held your interest, over the years? A: I once wrote that reading makes us feel less alone. It’s why I love it so. But writing, if we touch a chord in others, can make both the writer and readers feel less alone, feel connected to others like themselves. My life experience, and thus my work, is often a reflection of being female in America. And while we’ve expanded expectations and opportunities enormously over my lifetime, there is still a kind of unique loneliness to childrearing for women. We so often do it in isolation. Add to that the fact that in our competitive, perfectionist culture, in which the price women are required to pay for freedom still seems to be martyrdom, almost everyone lies about motherhood. Part of that lying is loyalty--I can’t let on that my kid is the only one on the playground who can’t read or play the piano--and part of it is self-protection, since we’ve made hyper motherhood a measure of female success. The preferred answer to the question “How are you?” is always “Fine”, and the answer to the question “How are the kids?” is supposed to be “Great!” That’s true even if the accurate answers would be “terrible” and “a mess.” I think that produces its own kind of desperation, especially for women, who yearn to be emotionally open. Thank God for good girlfriends. That’s a theme in this book as well. Q: Every Last One raises many questions about parenting--when to micromanage, when to punish, and when to let go. In your opinion, is Mary Beth a good mother? A: I think Mary Beth is a wonderful mother, sensitive, attentive and loving. But the whole point of this book is that sometimes that’s not enough. There are a million moving parts to raising kids, and you can’t always anticipate them all, especially when the outside world, other people, play such a huge role in their lives as they grow older. With independence there is one kind of pitfall; with overprotection, there is another. And sometimes you do everything right and something bad just happens. It’s as simple, and as scary, as that. Of course, when things go wrong, it’s still the mother who gets blamed. Where was she? What was she thinking? I wanted to look at that phenomenon in this novel, too. I’ve been distressed at how many people immediately concluded that Mary Beth was at fault in the events of the book. But I wasn’t surprised. Despite the increased role of fathers in our society, there’s still a sense that motherhood is the big fail if anything goes wrong. Yet it’s independence that is the ultimate success for your kids. If your goal is to build strong people from the ground up, the only way to do that is to give them enough rope to sometimes make their own mistakes. That’s a big theme in the novel, balancing oversight and independence I do think this sort of oversight is more frequently the purview of women. I used to say that my editorial direction on “Life in the 30s” was to write about what my friends and I were discussing on the phone. And then I would add, “If my husband had to write a column based on his phone calls…” I never got to finish that sentence. Every woman in the audience would bust up. It was assumed that women were in the business of emotional deconstruction, and men weren’t. Sometimes it means that we’re more engaged in certain aspects of our children’s lives. Sometimes it means, as Glen says of Mary Beth in Every Last One, that we’re way over involved. Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Anna Quindlen
The best preparation I could have had for a life as a novelist was life as a newspaper reporter. At a time when more impressionistic renderings of events were beginning to creep into the news pages, I learned to look always for the telling detail: the neon sign in the club window, the striped towel on the deserted beach. I learned to distinguish between those details that simply existed and those that revealed. Those telling details are the essence of fiction that feels real. The command of those details explains why Charles Dickens, a onetime reporter, has a byline for the ages.
I learned, from decades of writing down their words verbatim in notebooks, how real people talk. I learned that syntax and rhythm were almost as individual as a fingerprint, and that one quotation, precisely transcribed and intentionally untidied, could delineate a character in a way that pages of exposition never could. And I learned to make every word count. All those years of being given 1,200 words, of having the 1,200 pared to 900 at 3 o'clock: it teaches you to make the distinction between what is necessary and what is simply you in love with the sound of your own voice. The most important thing I ever do from an editing perspective is cut. I learned how to do that in newsrooms, where cutting is commonplace, swift, and draconian.
That’s where I learned about writer's block, too. People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently. That's not the way it works, and one of the best places to learn that is a newspaper, which in its instant obsolescence is infinitely forgiving. Jacques Barzun once wrote: "Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands." Journalism is the professional embodiment of that soothing sentiment.
Of course, it is also the professional embodiment of fact-finding, and that, more than anything else, is why the notion of a journalist who is also a novelist perplexes readers. "I could never make it up," one of the very best reporters I've ever known said to me. But that notion of untrammeled invention becomes illusory after a while. If you manage to build characters from the ground up carefully, make them really real, your ability to invent decreases as their verisimilitude grows. Certain people will only behave in certain ways; certain behaviors will only lead to certain other behaviors. The entire range of possible events decreases as characters choose one road, not another. Plot is like a perspective drawing, its possible permutations growing narrower and narrower, until it reaches a fixed point in the distance. That point is the ending. Life is like that. Fiction is like life, at least if it is good. And I know life. I learned it as a newspaper reporter, and now I reflect that education as a novelist. --Anna Quindlen
ExcerptThis 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. My husband stirs briefly next to me, turns over, blinks, and falls back to sleep for another hour. My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold. The coffeemaker comes on in the kitchen below as I leave the bathroom, go downstairs in bare feet, pause to put away a pair of boots left splayed in the downstairs back hallway and to lift the newspaper from the back step. The umber quarry tiles in the kitchen were a bad choice; they are always cold. I let the dog out of her kennel and put a cup of kibble in her bowl. I hate the early mornings, the suspended animation of the world outside, the veil of black and then the oppressive gray of the horizon along the hills outside the French doors. But it is the only time I can rest without sleeping, think without deciding, speak and hear my own voice. It is the only time I can be alone. Slightly less than an hour each weekday when no one makes demands. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion QuestionsFrom the publisher:
1. Before the unthinkable happens, the Lathams are like any other American family. Discuss Mary Beth and Glen, and their relationship, and then talk about Ruby, Max, Alex, and how they all relate to one another.
2. Mary Beth has a successful landscaping business, but she seems more focused on her family than anything else. Talk about Mary Beth as a mother, and discuss the relationships she has with each of her children. How are the relationships similar? Different? What kind of relationship do they have? Has Mary Beth focused on her children to the exclusion of her husband?
3. Female friendships are deeply important to Mary Beth throughout the novel, though her friendships change dramatically as her life changes. Discuss Mary Beth’s relationships with Alice, Nancy, Deborah (Kiernan’s mother), and Olivia.
4. As she thinks back to meeting Glen by chance at a college party decades earlier, Mary Beth reflects: “Our lives, so settled, so specific, are built on happenstance” (72). Do you agree that our lives are built on happenstance? Discuss this quote in the context of the novel.
5. Before the tragic events of New Year’s, Mary Beth spends a lot of her time looking forward. She likes to think about the lives her children will have in the future, and in what ways her family will grow and change. At the Halloween party, she thinks about future Halloween parties, and the jokes her grandchildren and children will make at her expense. Then, almost ominously, she thinks, “It’s only before the realities set in that we can treasure our delusions” (117). What do you make of this notion? Is she right?
6. As we read the novel, we know something awful is coming, but we don’t know quite what it will be. What did you think might happen to the Lathams? Did you, like Mary Beth, think Max might be behind the attacks on New Year’s at first? Talk about the events of that night, and discuss your reactions to the vicious crime.
7. Discuss Ruby’s relationship with Kiernan, and how (and why) it changes. Many people, especially Nancy, seem to think Mary Beth and Glen should have seen the warning signs regarding Kiernan’s increasingly disturbing behavior. Do you think Mary Beth and Glen could have done anything differently?
8. The police discover that Kiernan had been living above the Latham’s garage, and they find a disturbing photo montage of the family, with the words “HAPPY FAMILY” scrawled over the images of the Lathams. Mary Beth gets the reference to Anna Karenina, a novel Ruby and Kiernan studied in AP English. She thinks, “Ruby had been disdainful of Anna for leaving her son behind and choosing Vronsky instead. Kiernan has said she couldn’t help it, it was love that made her do it, love that made her leap in front of that speeding train, it was love that made people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise” (179). Talk about Kiernan’s motivations. Was it love that made him do something so awful? Madness? Drugs and alcohol? A combination of all of these things? Can we really ever know why people do such horrible things?
9. After New Year’s, Mary Beth’s life is clearly divided into the “before” and “after.” How does she change and adapt to her new life? What gives her the strength to pull through? Do you think she would have been able to go on with her life if she had lost Alex, too? Why or why not?
10. Quindlen does a magnificent job portraying Mary Beth’s unimaginable grief at the loss of her family. But she also shows how the loss affects others in the Latham’s circle. Discuss how Alice, Ruby’s friends Sarah and Rachel, Nancy, Mary Beth’s mother, Glen’s family, and others cope with the loss of the Lathams. Did anyone’s reactions surprise you? How and why?
11. Alex decides to go see Dr. Vagelos, the doctor who helped Max with his depression. And Dr. Vagelos reaches out to Mary Beth to help her and Alex deal with the loss of their family. Why do you think Mary Beth and Alex had such trouble talking to each other about what happened on New Year’s? Why is it important for them to have open communication?
12. Mary Beth explains that Alex was never very emotional, and that’s part of the reason she tried to be strong for him. Dr. Vagelos wisely tells her, “Sometimes children can get more attention because they seem to be in more need of attention. And then there are children who seem so self-possessed and competent that they seem to need less” (285). How does this statement relate to Ruby, Max, Alex, and Kiernan? Do you think Dr. Vagelos is right? Why or why not?
13. Mary Beth has always had a complicated relationship with her own mother. But her mother surprises her in many ways after New Year’s. She was the one who identified the bodies of Glen, Ruby, and Max, something Mary Beth doesn’t think she could have done. She tells Mary Beth that they looked like they were sleeping in the morgue. And then Mary Beth thinks, “My mother has done it. She has made me see what she wanted me to see. The one person who understands is the one person I never expected to understand me” (256). Discuss this sentiment.
14. Though it’s impossible to say that anything good can come from such a massive tragedy, Mary Beth forms a deep and satisfying friendship with Olivia after the death of her family. How do Olivia and Mary Beth help each other survive?
15. Similarly, Mary Beth and Alex start a new kind of relationship after losing their family. Discuss how their mother/son relationship changes, and what each learns about the other.
16. At the end of the novel, Mary Beth is settled in her new home, Alex seems to be doing ok, and together they are looking towards the future. When her mother asks how Mary Beth is holding up, she replies that she’s “trying,” and that is all she knows how to do. Discuss how Mary Beth has handled such a horrible tragedy, and what you make of her progress in starting a new life.
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