By Nancy Robertson
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; C04
EVERY LAST ONE
By Anna Quindlen
Random House. 299 pp. $26
Anna Quindlen's new novel, "Every Last One," packs an emotional punch similar to that of her previous bestsellers "One True Thing" and "Black and Blue." Her ability to convey the mundanity of everyday life while also building suspense stems from her journalistic eye for detail.
Her protagonist, Mary Beth Latham, thinks of herself as "Average. Ordinary. More or less." She's blessed with three teenage children whom she dotes over, a happy marriage and pleasurable work as boss of her own landscape business. What she loves about her job and life is "the slow inevitable progression. I count my years in small bushes grown broad, climbing vines that snake over fences and roofs, saplings that are spreading trees."
The first sentence of the book plants the seeds of foreboding. Mary Beth wakes to "the murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling [her] that there has been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas." But she is soon engrossed in the laundry, meals, school meetings and recitals that fill her days.
Each of Quindlen's characters -- kids, friends, neighbors and relatives -- seems real, and each could conceivably be the victim or perpetrator of the domestic dramas that lie ahead. Mary Beth worries whether she's treating the Mexicans who work for her fairly. (How can they manage groceries and send money back home on what she pays them?) Thousands of dollars worth of trees and shrubs are stolen from a recently completed job site. Parents drink too much at a neighborhood party. Sex with her husband feels like reading a book for the sixth time. And she breaks down in tears of loneliness for no apparent reason.
Glen Latham thinks his wife is over-involved in the inner lives of their children, especially their confident, 17-year-old daughter, Ruby. Mother and daughter have a special bond, but it undergoes new strains as Ruby enters her senior year of high school and breaks up with her boyfriend. He grew up in the house next door, and Mary Beth hates to see him heartbroken.
Ruby's earlier eating disorder has primed Mary Beth for signs of clinical depression -- which she believes she sees when one of her 14-year-old twins loses interest in school, bathing and leaving the house. She suspects he feels overshadowed by his more popular and athletic brother.
It's a testament to Quindlen's character development and plotting that by the time disaster hits early in the new year, the catastrophic consequences of everyday actions are truly shocking. The Latham home seemed so safe and sound to Mary Beth that she was blind to the real danger lurking outside.
As Mary Beth moves through shock and grief in the aftermath of great upheaval, hidden aspects of her life come to light. She's forced to face what she fears most and somehow try to keep on going. Quindlen succeeds at conveying the transience of everyday worries and the never-ending boundaries of a mother's love.
Robertson is a producer of "The Diane Rehm Show."