Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Wanted a Bit More

"All He Ever Wanted" by Anita Shreve

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 the story of one man's obsession with a woman who wanted something else.

Shreve indicates early in the story that the relationship between Nicolas and Etna has an unhappy conclusion, by narrating the story from Nicolas's voice, as a journal of his life, written years later. This mechanic works effectively as hindsight allows the narrator to include things he unobserved when events were taking place. This also gives us a more personal feel for the narrator, which a third person omnipresent point of view often lacks. However, since Nicolas tells us these things in writing, rather than as a spoken retrospect, Shreve makes us feel Nicolas is detached from the action, preventing us from becoming overly sympathetic to him. Shreve walks a fine line between empathy with Nicolas and feeling removed from him. This perfectly parallels the story itself where Nicolas's feelings for Etna grow, together with her aloofness. 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 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. Etna's coolness towards her husband is in contrast with the ardor 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 was the cause for her sloppy language. The significance here is that expressing emotion makes Etna more vulnerable and human, while Nicolas never allows himself this luxury. The only drawback with this is that some readers might find Shreve's prose to feel slightly stiff, although this didn't bother me.

While all this sounds 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 this book was missing the type of charm 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 humor, at least there was none 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 humor, and I think Shreve's characters would have been 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 notice that right in the middle of this novel was World War I. The single tiny reference to this seems an afterthought and I found it strange 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, the war affected even those areas of the US. Let's not even mention what the USA did to celebrate entering the 20th century, which she also ignored.

This may not be the best romantic drama I've ever read, but it is certainly not the worst. The use of language, literary tools and parallels was masterful. Shreve places us in one spot and then 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 humor and devoid of historical connections, which I expected to find. If you're an Anita Shreve fan, I'm sure you'll like this book, but can only give it three out of five stars.


"All He Ever Wanted" by Anita Shreve is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. A version of this review originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username "TheChocolateLady" as well as the {now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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