Emily Giffin’s delight in life’s frivolities has never stopped her from taking on difficult issues. Her earliest novels were classified as “chick lit” (whatever that means), but behind the wedding chat of “Something Borrowed” (2005) and the pregnancy panic of “Baby Proof” (2006) readers saw their own lives and concerns: What will happen to my friendships now that I’m committing to a spouse? How can I balance my life after I have a child?
Those novels were lots of fun but also well-crafted; after all, Giffin is a smart former lawyer. Now, she’s reaching deeper into the zeitgeist with “All We Ever Wanted.” It’s the story of Nina Browning, whose husband, Kirk, is a tech-industry player and whose son, Finch, has just been accepted to Princeton.
But “All We Ever Wanted” isn’t just Nina’s story. It’s also the story of 17-year-old Lyla Volpe, a scholarship student at Finch’s tony prep school. When Lyla gets uncharacteristically drunk at a party, what happens next brings Nina, Finch, Lyla and her father into unavoidable conflict.
Lyla has to cope with the trauma of unwanted attention, which Giffin handles carefully and realistically. She also shows the devastating effects of sexual abuse on Nina, who learns that her husband and son are not the people she’d hoped them to be.
Giffin keeps this moving by alternating perspectives and also by writing truly excellent dialogue, all the more arresting because she gets Lyla’s teenage voice just right. Both Lyla and Nina must contend with a world centered on patriarchal beliefs, a world that serves neither of them well. When it’s time for these women to choose their own ways forward, the path is painful. As Giffin wrote years ago in “Something Borrowed”: “I have learned that you make your own happiness, that part of going for what you want means losing something else. And when the stakes are high, the losses can be that much greater.”
There are losses in “All We Ever Wanted,” but there are also gains, and not the ones you might expect. Giffin’s novel has style and substance — a worthy addition to your summer reading stack.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Emily Giffin
Ballantine. 352 pp. $28