Note: This write-up contains spoilers for the plot of the book, so if you plan to read the book (which I highly recommend), I suggest not reading this write-up.
I picked up Every Last One pretty much by random. Its author, Anna Quindlen, has a new book out that I wanted to read (it’s called, Write For Your Life), and while I was waiting for it to become available in the library, I thought I would acquaint myself with her writing, as I haven’t read any of her books.
It turned out to be such a happy accident. Every Last One has blown me away.
The book is about a suburban mom, Mary Beth, who is married to Glen and has three teenage kids — Ruby, who is going to start her senior year in high school, and a younger set of twins, Alex and Max, who are just wrapping up middle school. Glen and Mary Beth are well-liked and respected members of the close-knit community in which they live — he is an ophthalmologist, and she has her own small landscaping business. The first part of the book captures the typical everyday details of Mary Beth’s life, which, at this stage, are mostly centered on their three children. They have widely different personalities, and while she and Glen are confronted with the usual challenges of raising three teenage kids — including tantrums, mood swings, lack of communication, the occasional rudeness, bickering, and even outright rebellion at times — they are, by and large, a happy family, who hang out, go for trips, eat dinner together, throw parties, and generally, do all the things that normal, stable families do. All of these everyday events are captured in so much detail and so authentically and vividly that I could fully relate to Mary Beth as she navigates the individual challenges of parenting each of her three kids with their distinct personalities.
Halfway through the book, there is a complete shift. Mary Beth’s family is massacred by an unhinged ex-boyfriend of Ruby’s, who was very close to the whole family and felt deeply betrayed by all of them when Ruby broke up with him. One night, after a New Year Eve’s party, he comes to the house and strangles Ruby, stabs Max and Glen to death, and also stabs Mary Beth before killing himself. Mary Beth somehow survives the stabbing, and her son Alex was thankfully away on a ski trip with a friend, else he would have been killed too. All of a sudden, Mary Beth’s full, happy family no longer exists — there is only her and Alex left. The rest of her family is gone, permanently erased.
This turn of events happens so abruptly that it comes as a completely shock. I felt like I had personally been sucker-punched.
How can you cope with this kind of tragedy? How do you carry on living when most of your immediate family is suddenly gone and they are never coming back? How do you make yourself get up every morning and live through the day? And how do you make yourself do this every day?
In Mary Beth’s words:
It was not so much that I wanted to die; it was just that I could not bear the incessant feeling of being alive.
The rest of the book is focused on how Mary Beth manages to carry on living. And the only reason she has for even trying to do so is Alex. She is still a mother, and she is the only family member Alex has left, so she has to force herself to continue to live without falling apart, to ensure that he has a home and a parent. The initial numbness and shock that Mary Beth feels after she has recovered at the hospital give way to an existence in which a small part of her gradually tries to resume functioning as a normal human being in society — buying groceries, exchanging pleasantries, making small talk, attending Alex’s soccer matches, and so on — while the rest of her continues to exist in a fog. Like this:
I have two selves now, the one that goes out in the world and says what sound like the right things and nods and listens and even sometimes smiles, and the real woman, who watches her in wonder, who is nothing but a wound, a wound that will not stop throbbing except when it is anesthetized.
While there is an immediate outpouring of sympathy from everyone in the community, what really sustains Mary Beth is the steadfast support of her longtime friends and extended family members, many of whom become much closer to her than they had been before. The book closes at the end of the first year after her loss, with Mary Beth still shell-shocked but in a more stable place, settling in a new home where Alex is able to have his friends over, starting to take on some small landscaping jobs, and even being able to host a Thanksgiving dinner for all the friends and family who have provided her with their steadfast support, help, and love.
She is also able to sometimes experience moments like these:
You can’t plan them, although I suppose those people who meditate and practice yoga think you can, but there are those moments when we experience physical happiness despite ourselves, before our minds remind us of the reasons we shouldn’t. A slight breeze, a warming sun, a little bird music: Your senses say something before your good sense says something different. If only we could be creatures of the body more often.
The book ends with Mary Beth telling her mother, in response to the question of how she is holding up, that she is trying. She is trying every day. She is trying not just for Alex, but also for Ruby, Max, and Glen. It’s all she knows how to do now. This is her life. She is trying.
I found the portrayal of Mary Beth’s grief so completely authentic, so palpably real, that it was hard to believe that it was written by someone who has not personally experienced what it feels like — suddenly and irrevocably losing an immediate member of your family without whom you don’t know how to live. I know that this is what writers do all the time — imagine characters and their feelings and emotions. But I did not think it was possible for anyone to imagine what this kind of deep-seated grief — complete and utter despair, barely living, just going through the motions — feels like and to be able to capture it to a tee.
I am absolutely and completely awed by the power of fiction, and by the amazing talent of Anna Quindlen to be able to capture so vividly the depths of a despair she has not personally experienced. (She acknowledges this in an interview that is reprinted at the end of the book.)
I am almost afraid to read any of her other books now in case it brings her down from the pedestal I have placed her on.
I did, however, go back and reread Every Last One as soon as I finished it. I found it just as heart-wrenching as the first time I read it.
Every Last One
Author: Anna Quindlen
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: April 2010
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.