All We Ever Wanted
by Emily Giffin
I had a love affair with Emily Giffin’s books a while back. Maybe ten years ago or so, I curled up and read Something Borrowed and immediately followed it up with Something Blue – all in one weekend, while I was on holiday visiting my grandmother. A vast expanse of Louisiana country acreage was laid out before me, the pine trees I’d grown up hiding in were far off in the distance, marking the property line. To my left was the fence I’d spent so many hours sitting on, feeding the horses from next door and giggling as they snapped at my palm hoping to make more apples magically reappear. To my right was a glass of iced lemonade and a Christmas napkin holding several of my aunt’s famous chocolate chip cookies. The porch had been covered early in my childhood, the open spaces filled in with windows and bricks laid by my grandfather, a ceiling fan installed to help get you through those tough Southern days full of the thickness of humidity. I’d curled up with those books and lost myself for a while, the sound of my grandparents and their children playing a (highly competitive) game of dominos creating a familiar and lulling soundtrack. They were easy reads, and I appreciated the light humor and romance.
After those books, I read Babyproof, and fell in love further. Babyproof was a lot less fluff than the previous two Giffin novels, and I was touched by the storyline and the honestly raw exhibitions. But then I fell into a sour disappointment. After picking up the rest of Giffin’s bibliography, I found I just couldn’t engage. There was something off in the tone of the other novels. It happens sometimes, when an author is no longer having to prove themselves and instead is bound by their publisher to crank out book after book – some of the charm gets lost in the shuffle. Books begin to sound mechanical and uninspired. I didn’t finish the books and let them collect (pastel, and very pretty) dust on the shelf.
Giffin wrote another book a few years ago, and it was set in Texas. Normally I’m all about reading books featuring my great state. Our history and our culture is so unique and defined to our area, and Texans are inherently proud of where we come from. While we share space below the Mason-Dixon Line with quite a few other states, Texas has always found a way to stand out in the crowd. Maybe it was our late entry into the United States or our determined spirit, but Texas is special … but, I digress …
I was out to a dinner with my husband; his Masonic lodge was honoring a few individuals, and I got caught up in a conversation with the daughter of one of the men. She was about my age, and because of her fortunate birth into a family well-off enough that she could lounge around a pool all day (while well into her 30’s) and not have to worry about money in the slightest, she had already plowed through the newest Giffin book.
“She thought adding football was enough to make this book Texan. I heard Emily Giffin came to Texas for six months to write this book and all she took away from being in the South was that we play football.” the woman said wryly, a sneer on her carefully Botox’d face as she tapped her manicured nails absentmindedly on the tabletop.
It was a statement that was enough to put me off that book, and the one to come after it as well. It probably didn’t help that I saw maaaaaany copies of that particular book thrown into the bargain bin at my local used-bookstore for $1. Not too long after publication, either.
So when I was sent a galley copy of All We Ever Wanted and asked for an honest review, I was dubious to say the least. I put reading it off until the last moment, sure that I was setting myself up for disappointment and would feel as if my precious reading time had been wasted – yet again. But instead, I was torn.
Let me explain:
Nina Browning is a woman just like any other – or so she tries to tell herself. She came from a normal upbringing in a middle-class part of Nashville, growing up with caring parents and a decent education from a regular high school. She certainly didn’t bank on the fact that as an adult, she’d become one of the elite. She didn’t assume that as a mother, she’d be carpooling in a G-Wagon or carrying a Chanel diaper bag. But after her husband strikes it big in tech and the family becomes part of the upper class, Nina falls into a routine … casually shopping for jewelry at Cartier, buying a new Jag every year, decorating her mansion with the help of a professional interior designer (and no budget). Her husband insists it’s all about the packaging here in Nashville – all about appearances – and Nina is willing to go along on the luxurious ride.
Amid all of her wealth and new privilege, there is something that nags at the back of her mind every now and then. What has she done to deserve this life, besides marry up? And more importantly, what has her teenage son done to deserve everything that he has in this life, by extension? Finch is growing up with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, or rather – a platinum one studded in diamonds. It bothers Nina that her son knows nothing of the charmed life he leads – the boy goes to a private school and drives the newest model of whatever car he wants, and if he desires concert tickets to a sold out show … all he has to do is call his father’s contacts and he’s enjoying the music from the front row. Nina knows that things are bordering on being out of control, but she has no idea how to rein it in.
Across the tracks in a small but tidy home, Lyla Volpe lives with her father Tom, just the two of them. After her mother walked out when she was just a little girl, Lyla has learned to depend on her father for just about everything. But there are some occasions when a girl really needs her mother … like when she has a crush on a super hot guy and she has no idea how to get his attention. That Saturday night when Lyla was getting ready to attend a party she knew Finch would be at, she tried to look her hottest. Tight dress, showing some leg, her exotic looks on complete display. She’s hopeful that the evening will end up with the two of them finally able to exchange a few words and maybe garnering some progress to the incessant daydreams that cloud her mind. All she can think about is what it would be like to kiss someone like Finch.
But what Lyla didn’t expect was to pass out drunk in a stranger’s bed and wake up the next day to photos of her being passed around on social media … photos that show her in a terrible light and sexually exposed.
Photos that also border on racist. Photos that Finch is responsible for. Photos that crush her.
Thrust into a scandal that rocks the community, Nina is forced to look at her life without rose-colored glasses for the first time. Finch is out of control and not the boy she thought she’d raised – or is he? Her husband is making things worse by throwing money at the situation and hoping it all goes away. Poor Lyla reminds Nina so much of herself from the past, and she’s finding she has more in common with Tom than with her own husband. While Nina struggles to fix things for everyone involved, Lyla is dealing with the true fallout … and when the truth finally comes out, it is sure to leave lasting scars.
All We Ever Wanted is the newest novel by Emily Giffin, an author best known for her light and airy romances and quirky humor. This is her ninth book.
While I sat down to this book with acknowledged prejudice, I was quickly drawn in by the premise and read a huge chunk in just one evening. Unfortunately, a few characters left a lot to be desired, and I prefer books that are character driven. I like to feel invested.
Nina’s character is obviously the main protagonist, but she is not as likable as she seems to think. Giffin draws this character as a woman with a conscience who is wrapped up in a life full of excess almost against her will – but I couldn’t find it in myself to believe the narrative. Nina likes her life and she likes the wealth, and I just wish it could have been admitted. I’m not sure why the reader is supposed to feel sorry for this woman. The lack of a connection between Nina and her teenage son Finch was troubling to me, causing me to dislike Nina even more. I am mother to a teenage girl and teenage boy myself and I can’t imagine not knowing who they are hanging out with or what they are doing, or at least having some idea of it. Nina admittedly hasn’t even had a decent conversation with her own son (and ONLY child) in years. She seems 100% complacent in her chosen obliviousness, and is only repentant when something that she cannot fix happens. Something that directly effects HER. Let’s be honest here, right?
Nina was softened in the exchanges spent with Lyla. But adding to my growing confusion, I felt like Nina had a much stronger connection to this girl than to her own son which was again, troubling. She cared more about Lyla’s feelings than finding out WHY Finch “did what he did”, or admitting that she had a hand in leading him down that path. Instead of facing the issues at home head on and amending the problem from her lane (and allowing Tom the privacy to amend from HIS lane), Nina instead did the same thing she has apparently been doing her son’s entire life – she ignored him and moved on to the shinier new toy. And she wonders why Finch is such a nightmare? Really?
Lyla was the true star of this book. I don’t think I would have felt a connection to this story had it not been for her. I appreciate Giffin’s attempts to humanize Nina with a background story, but in the end, this novel belonged to Lyla. I felt like focusing so much on Nina cheapened the root of the plot a little bit. Lyla went through something that is unfortunately very real and true for the young girls’ of today, and she handled it with grace and dignity. I really liked the ending of the book, where we got to see how things are for the cast of characters years later.
I’ve lived in the South all my life. I am Louisiana born and Texas bred.
When it comes to the social (and many times familial) aspect of Southern sensibilities, there is one way of dealing with things that seems to come around in an all too familiar loop – that you just don’t deal. Scandal is swept under an imported Turkish carpet. Bad behavior is ignored for the sake of the Good Ole’ Boys Club. Heads are turned and people look the other way, mostly because its easy. And also because it’s just how it’s done down here. So, I had a good grasp on the reasons why things in this book were being handled the way they were.
To be direct as a woman is considered by many in the South to be crass and inappropriate. To be blatantly honest is uncouth and unladylike. Women should know their place, right? There’s more than a sense of a patriarchal society in the South, there is an actual air that the masculine sex truly believes they are superior beings to women. And unfortunately, it’s mostly because that’s just how they were raised. Women are bred to tend the house and children, to dress everyone in their best for Sunday services, and to serve a plentiful buffet of sweet tea and fried chicken on the Fourth of July. But most importantly, they are bred to make sure they lift their young sons up onto carefully comprised pedestals and reaffirm again and again that those young men are future kings.
It may sound archaic – and that’s because it is. Now of course, that is not true in all areas of the South, nor is it the norm in all households. But it is something that is prevalent down here, and a lot of times – it’s a problem. Ever heard of affluenza? It was practically conceived down here. Giffin could have dug harder and made this novel about what it was REALLY about – Lyla and Finch. Not Nina.
The novel read well and easy, and fans of Giffin will enjoy it. I was looking for something deeper and honestly, more real – I think it was Nina’s character that tainted it all for me, but I can see how a lot of readers wouldn’t get as deep as I do.
All in all, I give All We Ever Wanted 3.5 out of 5 stars … it just wasn’t all I ever wanted, unfortunately.