When the dream becomes a nightmare

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ALL WE EVER WANTED. By Emily Giffin. Random House Audio. 10½ hours; 9 CDs. Read by Dorothy Dillingham Blue, Milton Bagby and Catherine Taber. $45. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

First things first: Emily Giffin’s All We Ever Wanted is a great listen or read for summer or anytime. This novel is as current as today’s headlines. It’s entertaining and suspenseful, with unexpected twists. It tells a good story while tackling important issues. What more could a reader want?

Now for a little background digression: I’m pretty sure I reviewed one of Emily Giffin’s early novels when I was, among my other responsibilities for that newspaper, the book-page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. Giffin is, after all, a fellow alumna of Wake Forest University. I can’t find my review from back then, but as I recall, I liked her novel and praised her writing, especially her dialogue.

Giffin’s first two or three novels were what’s usually called chick lit, aimed at women readers, and focusing on the lives and loves of young women characters. All eight of her previous novels have done well and been popular, with good reason. Giffin is a fine writer; she’s if anything even better at writing, convincing dialogue now than she was in her debut, and she’s smart – in addition to her Wake Forest degree, she has a law degree from Virginia, and she practiced law for a while before turning to writing full time.

She understands a lot about human nature and the world we live in.

This is her ninth novel, and I haven’t read the more recent ones that preceded it. I don’t know when she made the transition, but with this one, she definitely transcends any effort to pigeonhole her writing as chick lit.

All We Ever Wanted is an ambitious novel that deals candidly with tough issues, and looks at them through three quite different viewpoints: a well-to-do mother of a privileged teenage boy; the single, working-class father of a teenage girl whose mother is from Brazil; and the teenage girl.

The novel is ambitious, indeed, but Giffin is up to the challenge.

Nina Browning is the wealthy mom. She grew up firmly in the middle class, but while in college at Vanderbilt, she met the son of an old-money Nashville family. They married, and before long, he’d made a lot of new money by selling his tech business. Their only child, Finch, lives a very privileged existence, made even more so by his recent acceptance to Princeton. Somehow, though, Nina keeps having this nagging feeling that becoming extraordinarily wealthy has changed her husband, Kirk, and not for the better.

Tom Volpe is the hard-working dad, a carpenter by day who sometimes drives for Uber at night to make extra money. He grew up on the working-class side of the river in Nashville, nurturing a chip on his shoulder that hasn’t gotten any easier to bear during the years since his volatile Brazilian wife left him with their toddler daughter. He’s trying to do his best for Lyla, and part of that effort involved his letting her accept a scholarship for high school at Windsor Academy, the elite private day school Finch Browning has attended since kindergarten.

Lyla is a beautiful, spirited girl struggling to find her place in the world, a job made more difficult because her mother’s infrequent contacts are erratic and often disruptive. She’s happy to be at Windsor because of the academics and the opportunities such an education might open for her, but she struggles to fit in as the scholarship student among wealthy, often snobby kids.

One Saturday night near the end of Finch’s senior year, a few woefully bad decisions turn the world upside down not only for the Volpes and the Brownings but also for the greater Windsor Academy community.

Lyla accompanies her best friend to an unauthorized drunken party at the home of another Windsor student. A compromising photo of Lyla, taken with Finch’s cell phone, starts making the rounds via texts.

Finch is in danger of losing his Princeton acceptance. Lyla is humiliated and believes she’s in danger of becoming a pariah at Windsor. Tom Volpe is outraged and struggling to do the right thing for his daughter. Nina Browning finds herself questioning her son, her husband and all that she’s thought she stood for.

Nina, Tom and Lyla find themselves dealing with each other in ways they would not have imagined as they all try to figure what to do. Advancing the story through the – completely believable – words of each of these major characters, Giffin deftly brings up provocative questions about privilege, misogyny, date rape, responsibility, what matters in life and what it means to be a good parent. Don’t think you’ve got things figured out until you finish the book, though. Giffin’s story is anything but predictable, as full of surprises as life itself.

The audio version of “All We Ever Wanted” is especially effective as the three readers bring these quite different characters convincingly to life.

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