All He Ever Wanted
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
ll He Ever Wanted
is an elegant period piece that begins with a fireball in a New England hotel in December 1899, and takes the tone of its somewhat cold and formal narrator. Sixty-four-year-old Nicholas Van Tassel writes his memoir as he travels by train to his sister's funeral in Florida, '
trying to seize the past
' as it speed by and vanishes like the countryside through which the train passes. At the time of the fire, Van Tassel was '
Associate Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric
' at Thrupp College, just across from the hotel.
azed by the disaster, the professor spots Etna Bliss in the crowd and is immediately attracted by her '
quality of stillness
'. This attraction quickly becomes a full-fledged and unequal obsession, as between a '
supplicant and a benefactor
'. It turns out that Etna is in difficult circumstances since her mother's death, dependent on her relatives for a home. Nicholas presses his suit at every opportunity and they eventually marry, though Etna makes clear her lack of love for her future husband. Dark seeds sprout in Nicholas' heart on their wedding night but are not discussed with his wife.
he story fast forwards fourteen years to 1914, and the couple now have two beloved children, Nicodemus and Clara and a life composed '
equally of daily contentment and nightly anguish
'. Jealousy is Van Tassel's constant companion. Then an old acquaintance of Etna's, the talented Professor Philip Asher, comes on the scene. He is in competition with Nicholas for the position of Dean. Watching the narrator's reactions to and relationships with these people, the reader wonders who he really is. He loves Etna strongly but possessively; he appears to be a caring father; professionally he's conservative and has been caught at plagiarism. Overall, there's a meanness to his spirit.
he momentum of events and of a long unrequited love, along with the blossoming of Nicholas' jealousy, turn him from an obsessive lover to a stalker who commits an evil and unforgivable act that destroys his family life. And at the end of his journey, this '
faintly ridiculous man
' asks himself and the reader '
What was my crime?
All He Ever Wanted
and decide for yourself.
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