Engrossing Stories Best When Critics’ Page Is Ignored

by Mindy Borie
Columnist

When the praise on the inside jacket of Anita Shreve’s “All He Ever Wanted” informed me that the narrator, Nicholas van Tassel, was a monster, I didn’t bat an eyelash. Surely the inside jacket did not give away anything serious. And it didn’t. But I spent the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop, which I might suggest is not the best way to go about enjoying oneself.

But let me back up. Van Tassel is a young college professor at the beginning of the 20th century when he meets Miss Etna Bliss. She is the unmarried niece of one of his colleagues at the school who lives as governess to her uncle’s children after leaving home following some mysterious personal tragedy or scandal. He spots her one night as the restaurant they are both eating in burns to the ground, and from that evening is born a dangerous obsession.

Van Tassel loves Etna completely, but for her part, though she admires him, she says she can never love him. Eventually, he persuades her to marry him, convinced that one day love will grow between them.

Though the first half of the book is as arresting and beautiful as Nicholas believes Etna to be, it is the second half where the mystery of Etna begins to unravel. Part two begins 15 years after the conclusion of part one, when the van Tassels have built a home and life together and have two children.

The introduction of a new faculty member (a stranger somehow connected to Etna’s past) provides Nicholas with a rival both professionally and in his private life. He begins to suspect Etna of keeping secrets from him, and his attempts to understand and possess her lead him down a path of darkness which may cause him to lose her forever.

This utterly engrossing book is framed as Nicholas’ memoirs, written 30 years after the events described, as he rides the train to his sister’s funeral several states away. He addresses much of these memoirs to his daughter, from whom he has become estranged. The reason why is closely tied in to his relationship with his wife and the actions he ultimately takes to keep her, as well as the identity of the stranger mentioned previously.

So, why is he a monster? That is up to you to discover, should you so choose. As for why I told you, it goes twofold. One, I didn’t see any reason to hold off on information printed before page one. Two, because without it you would not be able to learn the most important lesson this book taught me, which is this: To spend a whole book waiting for a prediction to come true is a waste of the book. You’re better off skipping the critics’ pages. It’s a much better book without them.

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