How well can we protect our children from the cruelty of the world? That's a question best-selling author and former columnist Anna Quindlen explores in her sixth novel, Every Last One, which despite its dark themes and violent scenes, is buoyed by her winning voice. Quindlen starts simply: "This is my life: The alarm goes off at five-thirty with the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling me there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas."
The first half of the novel gives us a vivid portrait of Mary Beth Latham's life, her cozy love for her ophthalmologist husband, her challenging relationships with her three teenage children — Ruby, the oldest, a "confidently distinctive" high school student who writes poetry; fraternal twins Alex (one of the "polo shirt boys" who seem to have an easy life) and "always eccentric" Max — and her satisfying small-town landscape business. Mary Beth seems to have a full, busy life, although there are clearly signs of things that have gone awry. Her former best friend and neighbor now shuns her, and that neighbor's son, Kiernan, Ruby's boyfriend, clings to Mary Beth's family as his own. Ruby has had a bout with anorexia and is now growing tired of Kiernan. A big landscaping job has been trashed, the trees and shrubs stolen. Max's drum teacher suggests he might be depressed.
Quindlen orchestrates her chorus of voices, including extended family and neighbors, with exquisite balance. She places the shocking event that changes everything — a moment that echoes the book's title and is so stunning it made me gasp — halfway through the novel. Mary Beth's reaction takes up the rest. It's a risky plotting ploy, but the pacing works, as does the gradual shift in Mary Beth's sometimes clueless narrative as she begins to face warning signs she would not or could not see around her.
Quindlen understands human actions and reactions, deceptions and denials. Her emotional sophistication, and her journalistic eye for authentic dialogue and detail, bring the ring of truth to every page of this heartbreakingly timely novel.