(Reprinted from the Citizen newspaper, Auburn , NY)
Anna Quindlen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times column “Public and Private”. Her “Last Word” column that ran in Newsweek magazine for nine years left many readers saddened when she said goodbye to it last year.
Quindlen and her husband raised three children, and many of her columns focused on life as a parent of teenagers, something many of us could relate to, myself included.
Some of her most moving columns dealt with 9/11. Quindlen, a New York City resident, wrote movingly of a friend who was lost in terrorist attacks, and the aftermath of the tragedy on the loved ones left behind.
In her newest novel, “Every Last One”, Quindlen combines the story of a family of teenagers with the horror of an unthinkable act that destroys the family. The act comes out of the blue to devastate, and the result on the family is similar to what happened to people on 9/11.
Quindlen spoke recently at a book signing in New York City, and she described the story of this normal family as going into the basement of your home and finding a small crack in the foundation. You ignore it, then you notice a few weeks later that it is bigger. You ignore it again, and finally you find the basement flooded with water.
Mary Beth Latham narrates the story of her family. Her husband Glen is an ophthalmologist, and she runs a landscaping business. They are dedicated to their seventeen-year-old daughter Ruby and twin thirteen-year-old sons Alex and Max.
Ruby is an individual; she revels in not following the crowd. She has a unique style of dress, drives an old car, and wants to be a writer. She has two close friends, and a boyfriend, Kiernan, whom she has known her entire life. Ruby has recently recovered from an eating disorder.
Alex is typical all-boy; he excels in sports, has lots of friends, and is not so interested in school. Max is quieter, has no friends to speak of, and likes to play the drums. Kiernan is very kind to him, and Max looks up to him.
The Latham house is the one where all the kids hang out, and Mary Beth likes that. She likes the activity, and knowing her children’s friends feel welcome in her home.
Yet for all this typical suburban happiness, something discomforting lies underneath. Ruby’s eating disorder is mentioned, but not the underlying cause of it.
Max’s teachers are concerned about him; he is antisocial and never speaks in class. Mary Beth and Glen finally agree to send Max to a counselor, a man who specializes in helping twins, as he is a twin himself.
Mary Beth is prone to crying, a symptom she attributes to perimenopause, yet she says, “if pressed, I would have to say that they (tears) are the symptom of some great loneliness, as free-floating and untethered to everyday life as a tornado is to the usual weather.”
Ruby has decided that she no longer wants to date her lifelong friend, Kiernan. This is not something he takes well. He believes that he and Ruby are soul mates, and he will do anything to salvage the relationship.
Mary Beth supports Ruby, but it is difficult because Kiernan is always at their home, a part of the family. His parents are divorced, and although Mary Beth was good friends with his mom, something happened to change that.
Kiernan asks if he can move in with the Lathams when his mom has to move away to care for his grandmother. Mary Beth feels badly for Kiernan, but her first loyalty must be to her daughter, and Kiernan can’t seem to accept the fact that he and Ruby are no longer a couple.
The last half of the book is heartbreaking, and it literally took my breath away when the horrific violent act occurred. Quindlen said that this book has reverberations of 9/11, and when it does happen, it recalls the same feelings of that day- utter confusion, a deep sense of fear, helplessness, and grief.
Quindlen really gets the parents of teens vibe right. My generation parents differently than our parents. We spend more time with our kids, are in constant contact with them by cell phone, drive them to school, attend all of their sporting events, send them to expensive summer camps.
And yet, teens still keep secrets from their parents. They do not trust us more because we are more involved in their day-to-day lives. Ruby, Alex and Max are very close to their parents, but they hide things from them that may upset them, things that they feel may cause concern or disappointment.
Quindlen gets the marriage thing right too. Glen and Mary Beth seem like a loving, happy couple, but an unpleasantness in their past is hinted at, and later we find out the truth. This line about their marriage/parenting roles- “for purposes of our union, he carries the stoicism, I carry the concern”, speaks to many marital relationships.
“Every Last One” is a remarkable book, it will strike a chord of familiarity with parents of teens. How Quindlen manages to connect 9/11 and the feelings that evokes with the story of the Latham family is brilliant; it is cathartic to read this deeply moving, emotional story. Your tears will flow like Mary Beth’s by the time you finish.