Monday Book Talk: “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything,” by Janelle Brown

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle BrownThere will be an online discussion of this book on Tuesday, July 14 at Bookworm with a View as part of the Summer Reading Series.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything: A Novel
Janelle Brown (blog)
Spiegel & Grau, 2009 (paperback) (ISBN 0385524021 / 9780385524025)
Fiction, 448 pages

First sentence: June in Santa Rita is perfect, just perfect.

Teaser: “She was terrible at ballet. Her pliés were mushy, her pirouettes wobbly, and the way the elastic on the leotard squished the fat on her thighs depressed her.” (page 68)

Book description:  When Paul Miller’s pharmaceutical company goes public, making his family IPO millionaires, his wife, Janice, is sure this is the windfall she’s been waiting years for — until she learns, via messengered letter, that her husband is divorcing her (for her tennis partner!) and cutting her out of the new fortune. Meanwhile, four hundred miles south in Los Angeles, the Millers’ older daughter, Margaret, has been dumped by her newly famous actor boyfriend and left in the lurch by an investor who promised to revive her fledgling post-feminist magazine, Snatch. Sliding toward bankruptcy and dogged by creditors, she flees for home where her younger sister Lizzie, 14, is struggling with problems of her own. Formerly chubby, Lizzie has been enjoying her new-found popularity until some bathroom graffiti alerts her to the fact that she’s become the school slut.

The three Miller women retreat behind the walls of their Georgian colonial to wage battle with divorce lawyers, debt collectors, drug-dealing pool boys, mean girls, country club ladies, evangelical neighbors, their own demons, and each other, and in the process they become achingly sympathetic characters we can’t help but root for, even as the world they live in epitomizes everything wrong with the American Dream. 

Comments: In All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, Janelle Brown introduces us to a family during their summer of one crisis after another. After 29 years of marriage, Janice Miller is stunned to learn, on the day her husband’s Silicon Valley company makes a successful first stock offering, that he won’t be coming home to celebrate their new wealth – he’s leaving her for her best friend and tennis partner. Meanwhile, her elder daughter Margaret’s finances are rapidly plummeting to the other end of the spectrum as her own business goes under, and teenage daughter Lizzie’s social naivete is teaching her some hard lessons. Each of them is trying to cope with her problems in her own way, but none of their ways include much open communication with each other.

Brown alternates the focus of each chapter among the three women, and her use of third-person narration gives the reader some insight into each of their perceptions of each other – and these are characters who seem to relate to their perceptions of each other more than to the actual person. There’s a lot of reaction to the perceptions of others within the book, really. On the surface, especially in Janice’s case, it looks a bit like too much concern about “keeping up appearances,” especially since their upscale community is the kind of place where appearances seem to matter greatly – however, sometimes when the inner turmoil is just too much to deal with, attention to appearances can give a person some small sense of control over something. (Voice of experience speaking here.)

I didn’t really find much in All We Ever Wanted Was Everything that seemed particularly original. Sometimes it seemed to me that the author was piling every complication she could come up with on top of the characters, even though most of them did seem plausible under the circumstances. I frequently grew frustrated with the Millers’ disinclination, even outright refusal, to be honest with each other. Then again, I think I was meant to react that way; miscommunication is frustrating, sometimes even more so when it doesn’t involve you, because what the people in question should be doing can seem so obvious. Besides, these people were also struggling with being honest with themselves.

There were times when I had trouble liking the characters here, but I did think they were realistically drawn and developed, and they did end up engaging my sympathies. I was pulled into their story, and it made an emotional connection with me – I would have liked that connection to be just a bit deeper, though.

Rating: 3/5

Other bloggers’ reviews:

If you have read and reviewed this book, please leave a link in comments or e-mail me at 3.rsblog AT Gmail DOT com, and I’ll edit this review to include it.

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  1. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I think I just read your review of that book, actually :-).

    Anna – It wasn't necessarily presented very dramatically, but there definitely were quite a few plot complications.

  2. Amy – I think it was more that she added complications, rather than that the plot itself was complicated, if that makes sense. It was all a bit much.

  3. Nat (BookLineandSinker) – It was one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did, sadly. I wouldn't tell people NOT to read it, but it didn't completely work for me.

  4. With a cover like that, I would almost expect the book to be irresistible. 🙂 I do think sometimes the miscommunication issue can go to far, becoming annoying, and it sounds like it might in this book even if it was intentional. I am not sure this would be a book I'd want to read.

  5. Wendy (Literary Feline) – I think there could have been more to it than there was, so it was a little disappointing in that respect. You're right about the cover, though!