Sunday, April 20, 2014

"All He Ever Wanted," by Anita Shreve

On 2/8/10, I wrote about “middlebrow” literature, and gave Anita Shreve as one example of an author of such literature. Shreve writes reliably enjoyable and compelling novels, and I have read and enjoyed several of them over the years. I recently finished listening to “All He Ever Wanted” (Time Warner Audio Books, 2003), her 2003 novel set in the early part of the 20th century and featuring one man’s obsession with one woman. The young Professor Nicholas Van Tassel glimpses Etna Bliss across a restaurant during a destructive fire, helps her and her relative get home safely, and cannot stop thinking about her. He courts her and eventually marries her, but he always knows that she does not love him as he loves her; he is willing to accept this, as long as she is his wife and he can see her and be with her. They have a life, and two children, and get along fairly well, but there are strains and stresses, and eventually secrets from the past explode in their lives. Van Tassel tells the story many years later, and although he is fairly oblivious of his own faults, the reader can see that there were many mistakes, many misunderstandings on both sides. And we gradually see, as Nicholas writes, that his obsession led him to some foolhardy, misguided, and very wrong actions. At first this character is likeable and understandable, if slightly pompous and very fixated, but as the story proceeds, we get the uneasy feeling that he is willing to go too far in order to keep Etna with him. By the end of the story, we still basically sympathize with him, but with a much-tempered view of his character. The character of Etna is less known to us because Nicholas is telling the story, so throughout there is a slightly mysterious sense about who she really is and what she really feels and thinks. Only very occasionally do we get a more direct sense of her life and feelings. The focus is always on Nicholas, his obsession, his feelings, his actions; Etna's actions are portrayed mostly in reaction to Nicholas'; however, we do find out that Etna has her own secrets and passions. I like the fact that Shreve portrays the obsession with restraint and subtlety; although his laserlike focus on Etna is the driving force of Nicholas' life, the story is never out of control or "over the top"; there are no horrific or ultra-dramatic scenes just to keep the reader's attention. The setting of this story of genteel but powerful obsession reminds us that the basic human stories of love and relationships do not change much throughout history; the story takes place a hundred years ago, but could easily take place today. There are other parts of the plot of interest, such as the academic posturing, plotting and competition at the small, rather mediocre New England college where Nicholas teaches, and a sad reminder of the anti-Semitism of the time, even in academe. There are also many allusions to and examples of the limits put on women at that time, and how desperate some women were to have some freedom, some independence, some privacy. All in all, this novel is more than competently written, addresses some important and even riveting issues, and is quite engrossing.

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