Thursday, August 28, 2008

Falling Apart

On the back of Janelle Brown's new novel, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, three of the four blurbs imply that the book will be funny. They call it 'great fun,' 'withering satire,' and 'excruciatingly funny,' which makes me wonder if they also watch Animal Cops and CSI because they get a kick out of it. There were some funny/satirical touches swirling around the edges of the story -- teenage daughter Lizzie's pink sparkly Bible for teens ( James 5:15: "If you pretend you're, like, totally sin-free, you're full of b.s and God knows it. But if you confess your sins, God...will scrub all that nasty shizzle out of you."). The idea of buttoned-up housewife and country-club member coping with her divorce through crystal meth obtained from the pool boy. Older daughter Margaret getting a job dogwalking, and failing at that (you're probably supposed to laugh at the fact that the prissy little dog she was walking escaped and got hit by a car, although I've always been in agreement with actress Betty White on that type of humor, who won't do a movie that plays injury or cruelty to animals for laughs).

Generally, though, this story is downright depressing. It concerns three women (the three above) going through separate life crises. Janice's husband of three decades left her for her best friend the very day his company went public and made him a trillionaire. 28-year-old daughter Margaret's relationship has fallen apart, and so has her feminist magazine for teenage girls, Snatch, leaving her nearly $100,000 in debt. 14-year-old Lizzie has recently slimmed down and has finally enjoyed sexual success with boys, but not the right kind, and is ostracized not as a loser anymore but as the school slut.

All this takes place during one summer, and the house sinks deeper into depression as the women try to find ways to avoid their problems. You can practically smell the unwashed laundry and empty liquor bottles as you read this book. The presence of the Margaret character makes the book cry out for a feminist interpretation, and it ain't a pretty one. It comes out that Janice had the chance to live a bohemian life, had intended to live in Paris, but got pregnant before she could follow through. Yet Margaret is sort of the incarnation of the life Janice had intended, and she's not any happier: she feels that she's failed to live up to everyone's expectations, and it isolates her.

Lizzie thought she was playing by the rules, and living up to everyone's expectations. She lost weight, like her mother wanted her to. She got invited to lots of parties, and her mother was so proud. She had sex, just like all her peers seemed to expect her to. But all it got her was her name written on the boys' room wall. And pregnant, of course. They had to throw that one in there, as the ultimate punishment for screwing around (someday, I'm going to write a novel where a teenage boy sleeps around and gets a girl pregnant as a tragic consequence of his fun).

The book seems to say that there's no way to win as a woman. You can't carve your own path -- all that gets you is a bunch of debt. You can't go the route your own peers are telling you to go -- they actually don't mean it anyway, and they won't respect you if you do. And, even if you manage to strike some sort of compromise, your husband will dump you for your best friend and you'll be ostracized in the process. Through it all, you'll be looking at everyone around you, wondering how they do it.

The fact that many of them are probably looking back at you and wondering the same thing doesn't enter into the story much. For example, when you go to your high school reunion fresh from a breakup and stare in envy at the classmate who's a happily married mother and homeowner, there's a good chance she may be staring enviously back at you, thinking about how you're in graduate school and unencumbered and don't have to worry about getting back at 4 because that's when you foolishly told the babysitter you'd be home. Even a simple acknowlegement of the fact that Janice got ostracized not because people didn't like her anymore, but because she was a living reminder that it could happen to their marriages too doesn't enter in the story. All around, this book made me feel hopeless and depressed.

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