All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

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All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Davida Chazan
Reviewed by Davida Chazan
Summary: A well-written book with touches of genius in places left our reviewer regretting the lack of humour. If you're a Shreve fan already this book will probably appeal to you.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 348 Date: December 2003
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 978-0349116297

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Nicolas Van Tassel was enjoying a quiet meal when the fire broke out in the hotel's kitchen. Luckily he escaped, and there, among the survivors was Etna Bliss. For Nicolas, it was love at first sight, and from that moment on, Etna was all he ever wanted. Anita Shreve's All He Ever Wanted is a story of one man's obsession with a woman who wanted something else.

Shreve indicates early in the novel that the relationship between Nicolas and Etna has an unhappy conclusion. She does this by narrating the story in Nicolas' voice, and making the book a journal of his life, written years later. This mechanic works effectively in that hindsight allows the narrator to include things he did not actually observe when the events were taking place. This also allows us to get a more personal feel for the character narrating the story, which a third person omnipresent point of view can often lack. However, since Nicolas tells us these things in written, rather than vocal retrospect, Shreve makes us feel that Nicolas is himself detached from the action, which keeps us from becoming overly sympathetic to him. Shreve walks a fine line between empathy with Nicolas and feeling removed from him, which perfectly parallels the story itself - as Nicolas's feelings for Etna grow, her aloofness develops as well. I found this was a stroke of genius on Shreve's part.

The timeline of this story starts in 1899 and ends in 1933. This gives Shreve the leeway to use more formal language than a contemporary story would have. What's more, since Nicolas is a professor of literature, Shreve gives us perfect syntax and grammar throughout the story. This too adds to the reader's feeling of juxtaposing the unemotional and the passionate. While Nicolas expresses his adoration for Etna, we also feel that he is far from being a warm person. We also feel Etna's coolness towards her husband in contrast with the ardour of her past, as well as her growing need to remove herself from her husband's company. At one point, when Nicolas discovers some of Etna's correspondence, he comments that her fury caused her to become sloppy in her language. The significance here is that her expression of emotion makes Etna more vulnerable and human, while Nicolas never once allows himself this luxury. The only drawback with this is that some readers might find Shreve's prose here to feel slightly stiff, although I didn't have that problem with this book.

While all this sounds pretty good, I did have some problems with this book. When you think of "period" fiction, you might imagine something along the lines of Jane Austen. The obvious difference between Shreve and Austen is that Shreve is writing about the past, while Austen was writing about her own era. This could be the reason why I felt that this book was missing the type of charm that I find in Austen novels. While both authors deal with affairs of the heart, Shreve seems to have taken this subject a touch too seriously and has left out any human humour, at least there was none that I could detect. Of course, Austen's main purpose was to amuse, and Shreve's is to stir the heart. Still, no person's life - no matter how problematic - is ever without humour, and I think Shreve would have made all her characters more likeable, and perhaps believable, if she had brought some light-hearted bits into this work.

Furthermore, if we look at the period when the action takes place, we immediately see that right in the middle of this novel was World War I. The single tiny reference to this war seems to have been an afterthought and I found it strange that Shreve would ignore something so momentous in history, which must have had some sort of effect on these people's lives. Granted, the setting of the novel is a small collegiate town in America's New England region, but certainly even those areas of the USA were affected by the war. Let's not even mention what the USA did to celebrate entering the 20th century, which was also ignored in this book.

So while this may not be the best romantic drama I've ever read, it is certainly not the worst. The use of language and literary tools and parallels was done masterfully. Shreve puts us at one spot and artistically draws us through their whole lives with perfect ease, while we watch her characters act, react and grow from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I found this book to be a touch too sterile for my taste, lacking in humour and devoid of the historical connections I expect to find in period fiction. If you're an Anita Shreve fan, I sure you'll like this book, but can only give it three out of five stars.

We also have a review of The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve.

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