All He Ever Wanted

All He Ever Wanted
-by Anita Shreve
310 pages  (2003) 

Never judge a book by it's...title

Never having the pleasure of reading any of Shreve's works prior to delving into "All He Ever Wanted”, I admittedly formed an unfair and premature opinion of the novel based on its somewhat flimsy melodramatic title. However, I was soon to discover that it is definitely a fitting and descriptive cover for the thespian narrative that unravels within. I was also taken unaware that this was a period piece, set in New England in the early part of the 20th Century - a fact I was all too happy to uncover, as I am an aficionado of period works.

“All He Ever Wanted” is a heart-wrenching account of unrequited love, obsession, jealousy and betrayal; exploring the most intense (and at times, darkest) workings of the human heart. Dreary and rather depressing, this candid narrative painstakingly chronicles a marriage of convenience gone sadly awry. It is written in the voice of Nicholas van Tassel, an English literary professor at a small college in New England as he ponders upon the memories of his fateful past… 

One harrowing evening after escaping a restaurant fire, van Tassel happens upon the striking Etna Bliss and is instantaneously enraptured. Here commences their somewhat stifled and confusing courtship. Ultimately, their marriage forces each character to make critical compromises that will change their lives forever: Man gives up romantic ideal of marriage (knowing full well his wife does not love him) if only to ‘possess’ her for himself; Woman relinquishes hope of marrying someone she loves and settles instead for a man who offers her freedom and a degree of independence (which is ultimately counterfeit).

Although the story is a little slow and one-dimensional at the outset, as the plot proceeds the reader will be taken in by the rich detail and character definition that quickly develops. The letters between certain characters were also a nice touch, allowing a glimpse into their personal thoughts - a unique perspective for the reader, digressing temporarily from the narrator’s recital. 

All in all, I must say I was thoroughly impressed by Shreve’s shrewd portrayal of affections not reciprocated in "All He Ever Wanted"…it is a theme all too familiar in the human game of love.

- review for Time Warner books

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