Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 304 pages; 2003.
Anita Shreve‘s All He Ever Wanted was a surprisingly enjoyable book. I say surprising because as much as I have enjoyed Shreve’s other novels, Sea Glass and Strange Fits of Passion, I found the opening chapter a little stodgy and wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to continue.
But I’m glad I persevered. Once I got used to the voice of the narrator, Nicholas Van Tassel, an English professor, who “speaks” in a pompous, sometimes convoluted, manner, I got swept away by the story.
Set in the late 19th and early 20th century it follows the relationship between Van Tassel and the love of his life, Etna Bliss, who agrees to marry him despite the fact she does not love him in return. Obviously this is not a match made in heaven but Van Tassel is blind or unwilling to acknowledge that all is not well.
While Etna plays the obedient wife and bears him two children, she also keeps a secret which threatens to destroy the marriage at a later date. It is when this secret becomes known that we see the obsessive jealousies and passions which have dominated Van Tassel’s life; he will stoop to anything to hang onto his wife. Coupled with his ambitions to become dean at the college to which he has taught for most of his life, we see a desperate man reduced to desperate measures and it is not a pretty sight.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It deals with big themes — love, honour, betrayal — with a deftness of touch. Shreve’s writing is incredibly evocative of a past era; she captures the social mores of the time perfectly. She explores the inner workings of the human heart with equal aplomb.
Definitely a winning novel and a good, intriguing read for a wet and wintry day.