September 2008

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is named after my favorite Bauhaus song, and to be honest, it didn’t really live up to the title. I wanted so very much to love this book–and for awhile I couldn’t put it down–but I think it ultimately disappoints.

This is the story of a mother, Janice, and her two daughters, Margaret and Lizzie, and how they’re all affected when the father runs off with the mother’s best friend. He officially leaves on the same day that the stock of his pharmaceutical company (spurred by its new anti-balding drug, Coifex, fantastically described as a giant green horse pill) explodes, making him a one of the wealthiest men in his already-wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhood. Unfortunately for Janice, he’s managed to cut her out of the new earnings. Even more unfortunate for Janice is the fact that she develops a handy crystal meth addiction. (Multi-tasker!)

Margaret’s a feminist intellectual who’s barely surviving in LA now that her feminist magazine, Snatch, has pretty much imploded, leaving her almost $100,000 in debt. The scenes with her musing on her own failure while surrounded by her friends (all spectacularly successful and rich, of course) were the best parts of the book, and I loved a scene where Margaret, with only $300 to her name, facing eviction and about to have everything in her life taken away, is pressured into paying for a chunk of a rich friend’s birthday dinner. Margaret’s the most interesting character in the whole book, from her grad school thesis “The Mother Alien: Contemporary Cinema and the Poststructuralist Feminist Cyborg” to her maddeningly passive attempts to interrogate a drug-dealing pool boy.

Her younger sister, Lizzie, is a teenager in high school who’s recently developed an interest (and talent for) sex–or, more accurately, the attention she gets from boys thanks to her newfound reputation. While she’s incredibly sympathetic, her lack of intelligence and common sense are almost too much to take. You can probably guess at a late-novel Lizzie subplot already which Janelle Brown quickly (and overly conveniently, as she herself admits in the text) then dispatches.

Brown does a great job of juggling these three women’s storylines, and dropping hints and information in one chapter that are echoed in subsequent ones to great effect. The total lack of real communication among the three women makes a frustratingly accurate point–one real conversation involving all three women would shorten the novel by 100 pages at least. Of course, that’s the way real families are and always will be, too.

The novel is best when it’s unflinchingly dark–Brown sends her characters hurtling towards their own destruction with clear, cold eyes–but sadly she softens towards the end, weakening the overall effect. Even though it falls apart, I still couldn’t put the book down. I just wish I hadn’t been left with a bit of a headache and some regret when I was finished.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
The Plague And I by Betty MacDonald
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg