Fiction – paperback; Emblem Editions; 312 pages; 2012.
Katrina Onstad’s Everybody has Everything — longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — is billed as a story about parenthood, but I think it’s more accurate to describe it as a portrait of a marriage. It is also a compelling examination of how different people find fulfilment in different ways. More importantly, it is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.
A portrait of married life
The story revolves around a married couple — Ana, a high-flying corporate lawyer in her late 30s, and James, 42, a documentary film-maker who has just been laid-off from his television job. From the outset, it can be assumed that it is Ana, the major breadwinner and ambitious career woman, who wears the trousers in the relationship, but as the narrative evolves we learn that nothing is quite what it seems and that both partners are deeply flawed and grappling with their own needs and desires. The title of the book may suggest that “everybody has everything”, but do they really?
For a start, Ana and James cannot have children. They find this out on the morning they are to attend the wedding of their friends Marcus and Sarah, who is eight months pregnant. They have only known Marcus and Sarah for a short time, but the friendship becomes a central part of their busy lives and the resultant child, a boy called Finn, effectively becomes the child they couldn’t have.
James had developed an unspoken narrative in which he and Finn had a special bond. He did not tell Ana how it made him feel, this warm bag of socks over his shoulder, the pleasure he got when Finn moved his penny-shaped mouth. […] Sarah and Marcus waved as they walked away, pushing the stroller, calling thank-yous behind them as Ana and James stood on the porch, James’s arm protectively around his wife, wondering if anyone else had noticed that Ana had never once held the baby.
This difference in attitude towards Finn — James is warm, affectionate and doting; Ana cool, detached and indifferent — comes into sharp relief when a car accident leaves Marcus dead and Sarah in a coma: two-and-a-half-year-old Finn is left in their care. Having parenthood thrust upon them in this way is an unexpected — and for Ana in particular, unwanted — challenge. Much of the book highlights how they deal with this change in circumstances and priorities.
The crucial element of the story is not so much whether everyone can be an effective parent, but how people find fulfilment in their lives. For Ana fulfilment comes through work and career; for James it is is being a father. It is this unconventional take, in which Onstad pits the ambivalence of motherhood against the warm glow of fatherhood, that I most admired about this book. And because she does it in such an intelligent, perceptive way, without ever casting judgement or aspersions on Ana, it feels all the more real — and hard-hitting.
In highlighting the ways in which both individuals approach their new-found parenthood, Onstad is able to show their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. And by the end of the novel you come to understand that no matter how far apart marriage partners may grow, the importance of a shared history can never be underestimated. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Joshua Henkin’s 2008 novel, Matrimony, which is a wonderful portrait of marriage over the course of 15 years.)
Admittedly, there are a couple of narrative “twists” near the end which I felt weakened the story (I won’t reveal my concerns, for fear of the spoiling the plot), but on the whole I loved this sharply observed novel and devoured it in a weekend. It is tender and compassionate without being cloying or sentimental, and intelligent and wise without being dry or preachy. And I would dearly love to see Everyone has Everything make the short-list for the Giller Prize, which is revealed on Monday.