Mary Beth Latham, the protagonist of Anna Quindlen’s new novel, EVERY LAST ONE, is self-aware enough to realize how lucky she is. Her husband, Glen, is a doctor, and her landscaping business is successful, although the realities of some of her Hispanic workers’ hard lives sometimes pinch her conscience. Her troubles with her three teenaged children --- Ruby, defiant and formerly anorexic; and Max, the awkward and depressed twin of jock Alex --- are made more manageable by access to good therapists. Mary Beth doesn’t spend too much time (although, like most of us moms, she spends a little!) wondering how much of their issues are her fault.
Her long-term marriage is stable, and if it’s not as exciting as she sometimes wishes, she wisely realizes that romance ebbs and flows with time. “Neither of us seems to want to do it much anymore, but when we do it’s fine. I do things I’ve been doing for years. He does, too. They still work. They just seem a little beside the point, like reading a book for the sixth time.”
This matter-of-fact, knowing narrative continues, establishing a link, perhaps, with the many female book buyers who share Mary Beth’s concerns. We can feel both her frustration with Ruby’s moodiness and her pride in Ruby’s ambition and writing talent. She worries that lonely, awkward Max suffers in comparison to his successful athletic brother, Alex. Like many mothers, she often feels that her attempts to help her children backfire. Yet, as she narrates the prosaic ins and outs of their lives, the reader senses that a harrowing event is coming, maybe even craves it. And come it does, just about halfway through the novel.
Overnight, on New Year’s Eve, Mary Beth’s comfortable upper-middle-class life is turned upside down by a shocking act of violence, and the meat of this book pertains to how she copes and eventually begins to heal. Mary Beth must learn to live with loss and fear. This is a gradual process, and Quindlen presents it in a similarly gradual fashion --- in little slices, like how it feels dishonest the first time a smile comes almost naturally, and how hard work is sometimes the only thing that can bring solace.
Mary Beth is so sane, so lucid, that I never doubted she would find a way through her pain. Still, the ending moved me, and I agree with her realization that all our fears are related to the primal fear of death. At one point Mary Beth reflects on a client who is “not a patient man.... He doesn’t want anything to grow; he wants it to appear. I hate the notion; what I love about my work, and I suppose my life, is the slow inevitable progression.” EVERY LAST ONE is also a slow, inevitable progression, albeit a skillful and insightful journey into a mother’s love and dealing with unimaginable loss.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 21, 2011
Every Last One