Coincidentally, immediately after The Scent of Rain and Lightning (see previous post), I read another novel about an ordinary family experiencing extraordinary tragedy, Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One (2010). This time I’m reminded of Judith Guest’s Ordinary People (1976), which I taught to college students in a course on gender issues in literature.
Guest’s novel focuses on the aftereffects of the accidental drowning of the older son and attempted suicide of the younger one on an affluent, suburban family. The traumatic events have already occurred when the novel begins, and we watch as the younger son travels his journey to health and healing, with the help of an able psychologist, and as his parents, particularly his mother, slowly unravel. In The Scent of Rain and Lightning, we learn of the tragic events through a lengthy flashback. The death of Jody’s parents thus occurs near the center of the novel. Similarly, the tragic event of Every Last One occurs at almost the exact center of the novel, after 17 chapters on the everyday life of the Lathams, another affluent, suburban family.
During those 17 chapters there is a continuous sense of foreboding. There is the middle school son suffering from depression, the teenage daughter who breaks up with her boyfriend (who doesn’t take it well), the stable but humdrum marriage, and the hint of previous infidelity, but nothing that really seems to justify the ominous air of impending doom. Will there be a divorce? Suicide? Something worse? Something will happen, but what? Nothing prepares us for the “something worse” that occurs to that family on what seems to be a typical New Year’s Eve, though the signs have been there all along. I read those signs no better than the mother of the family, the ever-vigilant mother ceaselessly looking out for potential threats to the well-being of her family.
The last 16 chapters tell of the restoration of order, of health, of something approaching normal life, punctuated by mini-crises and transitions.
The novel is structured by the passing seasons and the annual events (high school prom, summer camp, Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s, high school graduation, summer camp, etc). The primary sections are marked by three houses: the original family home, the transitional guest house of a friend, and the new house, where Mary Beth, the mother, seeks to build a new life.
On one level this is a story of motherhood, the process of maintaining the order, health, and happiness of the family. Although Mary Beth runs her own landscaping business in the community, her primary focus is the caretaking of her family: keeping house for them, feeding them, surveilling them, disciplining them, creating opportunities for them, and supporting them. At one point, late in the novel, she says that every fear is a fear of dying, “every last one,” and it has been her mission to keep disorder, illness, and death at bay. It turns out that no amount of education, affluence, privilege, caretaking, or vigilance can ensure her success. And so her mission must become learning to live with that knowledge.
As with all novels there are political messages if you look for them. For example: with all our progress women still bear primary responsibility for domestic life and therefore the blame for its failures and oversights; or, while class privilege cannot protect you from tragedy, it can sure help insulate you as you pick up the pieces (friends with guest houses, prescription medication, life insurance, a generous inheritance, psychologists, grief counselors).
Mary Beth can be seen as a social “victim” in one case and a beneficiary in the other. Transcending her position in the matrix of social power, however, is the universal quest for order, health, and happiness in a world in which death is the universal end and the universal fear.
Kiernan, the boyfriend that the Latham’s daughter, Ruby, breaks up with the night of prom, had been a childhood friend, the son of a family who had once lived next door. Their quest for order, health, and happiness had been derailed early, first by the drowning death of Kiernan’s younger brother in the backyard pool, then by divorce, and, then, apparently, by the emotional instability of the mother, Deborah.
Much later, in Kiernan’s makeshift room is found a wall of photographs he has taken of Mary Beth’s family, especially of Ruby, with the words “Happy Families” spray painted over them. This reference to the famous quote from Tolstoy in *Anna Karenina* is suggestive: “Happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Whatever you think of the quote, Kiernan seems to prefer Ruby’s family to his own. At least the Lathams are intact.
The quest for family happiness and the contrast between “happy” and “unhappy” families are central to the book. Further, if the Lathams represent the “happy,” then Kiernan’s family represents, not only the “unhappy,” but also the shadow, or dark side, of the “happy” family.
The two have been closely connected: they lived next door to each other, Deborah and Mary Beth were best friends, Kiernan and Ruby had been a “couple” almost from childhood, and, it turns out, Mary Beth had had a brief adulterous fling with Deborah’s husband. Did Deborah know? Did Kiernan know? The husband had been a serial adulterer, so when Deborah threw him out, it’s not clear how much she knew about all her husband’s partners. Whether Deborah “knew” or not, Mary Beth’s own guilt might have weakened the friendship. In any case, after the divorce Deborah and Kiernan move, and, while Kiernan continues to be a regular at the Latham home, Mary Beth’s friendship with Deborah wanes.
Mary Beth’s affair, however brief, is one indication that all is not well in the “happy” Latham family. And how much does her own family know about that? If Kiernan knows, did he tell Ruby? Does Mary Beth’s husband know? Another sign is the tension between the Latham twin sons, one of whom is a successful athlete, who has lots of friends, unlike his brother, who is more of a loner with an artistic bent. The latter son shows signs of depression and starts seeing a psychologist, who specializes in twins. Then there is the break-up between Ruby and Kiernan, which seems to liberate Ruby, but devastates Kiernan, who keeps finding excuses to see Ruby and visit the family.
After that fateful New Year’s Eve, when the dark side erupts, Kiernan’s family is further destroyed, the Lathams are no longer “intact,” much less “happy,” and Deborah blames Mary Beth. Was Tolstoy right, or is there only a thin line of difference between the two types of families, a line that can be crossed in an instant?
Is hope to be found in the contrast between the ways the two former friends respond to their respective tragedies? When Deborah takes revenge by deliberately crashing into Mary Beth’s car multiple times in a parking lot, it does not bode well for her recovery. Mary Beth, on the other hand, while, for the first time, setting a clear boundary between herself and Deborah, appears to be on the road to rebuilding her life and what’s left of her family, not that one ever fully recovers from the kind of tragedy she suffered. At least, as she says at the end, she is “trying.”
That may be the most redemption the novel offers in this sadly tragic tale. There is more reason for hope, but that would give away too much to anyone interested in reading the book for themselves. In any case, whatever hope we are left with is tempered by the knowledge that death is still the universal end and the universal fear for every last one of us.