Now in his senior years, Nicholas Van Tassel travels on a train from New England to Florida for the burial of his sister, while writing the memoirs of his ruined life. He begins years earlier with the fire --- the fire that would set his fate.
As crowds escape a hotel blaze, Van Tassel spots a riveting woman under a lamppost. "There was about her a quality of stillness that was undeniably arresting, and if I close my eyes now," he recalls, "here in this racketing compartment, I can travel back in time more than three decades and see her unmoving form amidst the nearly hysterical crowd." From the start, Shreve sets up the initial sighting of Etna Bliss as something beyond normal attraction. Van Tassel tells us "my desire for this unknown woman was so immediate and keen and inappropriate that it quite startled me." In hindsight, Van Tassel describes his passion as capable of eroding and enhancing character --- in equal measure --- and yet it is the sentence about erosion that is most telling of things to come: "The erosion the result of the willingness to do whatever is necessary to obtain the object of one's desire, even if it means engaging in lies or deception or debasing what was once treasured."
Enamored, Van Tassel pursues the aloof Etna immediately and with vigor. He ingratiates his way into her life, which is easy to do in the small quiet town where he has made his life and where there is little else to entertain or distract Etna. A seemingly harmless type --- professorial by vocation and character --- he is, by his own account, loyal and disciplined, even, ironically, when visiting the less savory neighborhood of Springfield, Massachusetts for trysts with women of some reputation. Etna proves to be a formidable mystery, but Van Tassel, who is obsessed, perseveres. They ultimately wed and have children, but Etna remains distant and impenetrable, and Van Tassel suspects that she has known love before him, though he dare not ask. Instead, he lets his jealousy fester. Eventually Etna's past comes to light and collides with Van Tassel's need to totally possess her. A grand scale betrayal ensues, wreaking destruction and devastation on all involved.
Shreve peppers the story with the telltale detail she has come to be known for. Set in the last 19th and early 20th centuries, Van Tassel and Ms. Bliss engage in a proper courtship of afternoon teas, walks in the park and the exchange of books. All the while Van Tassel's desire grows, consumes and seethes below the surface.
Shreve is one of those rare great authors who is equally at ease writing about any period. One sees the clothes, the furniture and the architecture in lively, captivating detail. Even in sharing his want, Shreve shows the reserve appropriate of the time: "Had it been at all within the realm of possibility, I would have crossed the distance between us and forced her face to mine. I would have dug my hand into the small of her back so that she was pressed hard against me. I would have lifted her skirts and run my hand along her thigh and tucked my fingers into her stocking. I would have done all those things, and perhaps she saw this, for she drew herself together in an instant, as if she had plunged her wrists into icy water. Of course, I did nothing, but I cannot help but wonder what might have happened between us had I been bold enough to touch her then." Such restraint is palpably evident throughout the book --- and rightly so. It is the tenor of the time and Shreve is a master of time.
The acclaimed talents evident in WEIGHT OF WATER, THE PILOT'S WIFE and Shreve's other works are on full display in ALL HE EVER WANTED. She takes us to another time period with evocative language, in a rich and complex story. Shreve plumbs the depth of desire and love and jealousy in intimate and immediate detail, once again proving her place as a bestselling author.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 20, 2011
All He Ever Wanted