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All the Numbers    by Judy Merrill Larsen order for
All the Numbers
by Judy Merrill Larsen
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2006 (2006)
Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ellen Banks is a teacher and a divorced, loving mother of two boys, Daniel and James - thirteen and eleven respectively. Life is pretty good and calm, with only the usual minor parenting anxieties, until one summer day a teen boy on a Jet Ski cuts Ellen's heart open and leaves it bleeding. The book's title comes from the kind of banter that all parents engage in with their little ones, around the question, how much do you love me? 'All the numbers' has become the shortcut that Ellen and her sons use for the answer.

Every summer for the last ten years, Ellen and her boys have joined her good friends Anna and Sam, and their three daughters, at their lakeside cottage in Wisconsin. One day in late afternoon, the adults are sipping wine and chatting, while watching the kids play in the shallow lake. A Jet Ski roars past and the expression in Sam's face changes before he dives in ... only four blond heads surface where the children were. Sam pulls James out with a severe head injury - he's taken to hospital, and then airlifted to one with better facilities. Supported by family, friends, and a caring nurse, Ellen waits numbly through the first critical forty-eight hours. But there's no happy miracle to end her ordeal. Ellen is told that James is brain dead. She must face difficult decisions about turning off life support and about organ donation.

Larsen deals with this young mother's reactions - and her interactions with all the well meaning folk around her - with great empathy, and shows us someone who could be a friend or neighbor. She takes us through the process of grief and recovery in minute and credible detail. After the first flaring of uncontrollable emotions, Ellen begins to obsess over the judicial situation, and to neglect the needs of her surviving son. When the county prosecutor (who, it turns out, knows the perpetrator's family) decides not to press charges, Ellen finds her own lawyer, a handsome and kind man named Bob Hansen, and appeals. Ellen is attracted to Bob, but fights it, finding it inappropriate to find happiness in anything related to her son's death. The plot unfolds emphasizing 'How little control we have over our children's lives' and that nothing is black and white.

Keep a box of tissues nearby while reading All the Numbers, as dry eyes are impossible. Readers will feel for Ellen, cheer her on, and silently applaud the wise and compassionate decisions she finally makes. I read the novel at summer cottage on a lake (fortunately with no Jet Skis) which made it all the more poignant, and increased my normal level of caution about water accidents. There's an author interview at the back and reading group questions for discussion. All the Numbers is a quick but gripping summer read, both incredibly sad and very satisfying.

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