Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review: All He Ever Wanted (audiobook)

From Anita Shreve's All He Ever Wanted reads like Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own told from the perspective of the husband. The wife gains a measure of freedom, but how does the repressive, abandoned husband feel about that freedom? Set in the early 1900s in the fictional New England college town of Thrupp, and narrated by the pompous Nicholas Van Tassel, All He Ever Wanted is at once an academic satire, a period novel, and a tale of suspense. Shreve's ability to nimbly hop through genres brings a liveliness to this story of love gone depressingly wrong.
Van Tassel is an undistinguished professor of rhetoric at Thrupp College and a confirmed bachelor when he meets--in no less flamy a scenario than a hotel fire--the arresting Miss Etna Bliss. Immediately smitten, he woos and wins her. At least, he persuades her to become his wife. But Van Tassel hasn't really won her. Etna keeps her secrets and her feelings to herself. The extent of her withholding only becomes clear after a couple of kids and a decade or so of marriage. (review clipped because I think that it gives too much away.)

I confess: this is the first Anita Shreve book that I've read, which says something because this novel was published in 2003. I tend not to jump on the bandwagon with authors; I know who and what I like, and in most cases, it's usually not the hottest writer or book. I have no interest in the Twilight saga, I read my first Jodi Picoult novel last year, and such is the case now with Anita Shreve. (I'm listening to the audio of her fifth novel, The Pilot's Wife, published in 1999.) But, I picked up the audiobook of All He Ever Wanted at the library a few weeks ago and I found myself liking this much more than I anticipated.

Audiobooks depend on a good narrator, and in this case, Dennis Boutsikaris is excellent. If snobby has a sound, it is Boutsikaris as Nicholas Van Tassel. He and Shreve capture very well the ivory towers (real and assumed) that make up academia and the folks inhabiting them.

As the Amazon description states, this is a novel set in the early 1900s; some may say that the time period is an explanation for Nicholas' behavior towards his wife. I saw this as a commentary on the subtle side of domestic abuse, which doesn't always need to manifest itself in a physical way. Nicholas' controlling tactics are ones characteristic of someone who is emotionally abusive, tendencies fueled by Nicholas' inherent jealously in terms of his colleagues and his wife's past. The lengths he goes to in order to gain all he ever wanted becomes the climax of the novel, and the ultimate question for Nicholas as he reflects on his life (and tells the story in flashback as he writes his memoirs on a train ride to his sister's funeral )is whether it was worth it.

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. I also had the printed version, and I read the last several chapters as opposed to listening to them. Still, the audiobook kept me engaged and, perhaps more importantly, awake on my long afternoon commute home. (I'm not sure that I can say the same about The Pilot's Wife, which I am not enjoying as much as All He Ever Wanted.)


Becca said...

I've read most of Shreve's books, and I'm always hoping I'll like them more than I do. Her new one is getting pretty good reviews. There's a remoteness to her characters somehow - I never feel close to them.

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

That's it exactly, Becca! The remoteness to the characters. That's exactly what I am feeling with The Pilot's Wife, but I only have 100 pages (or, 3 tapes) left, so I'm not abandoning it altogether.