“All He Ever Wanted”
Riceviamo e pubblichiamo un contributo di Harriet Agnes Nnamutebi su
Anita SHREVE, All He Ever Wanted, Back Bay Books, 2004.
It is 32°C on a mid-May afternoon in Rome. I begin reading a novel and am immediately confronted with a fire blaze in Thrupp Hotel, New Hampshire, in All He Ever Wanted, a novel written by Anita Shreve. Nicolas Van Tassel is exercising altruism by helping people to escape when he experiences love at first sight having set his eyes on one of the fire survivors, Etna Bliss and from then on, Etna is all he ever wanted.
With Nicholas I am made to make a journey through the motions of falling in love. Making one’s mind up on what one admires and all the self manipulation to please the beloved are never lacking in this endeavour. Not to mention the willingness to understand everything that may seem awry just to be adored by the other.
Being a person who likes fashion, I savour with relish Shreve’s detailed description of what Etna wears on every occasion that she meets Nicholas. How I envy Etna for all the designer gifts she receives from Nicholas during their courtship. Which were given of course with the motive that each gift given and received would enter credits in the ledger of their courtship (But don’t all men do the same when they want to win over a woman?).
If only all of us were given the gift of alertness that seems to possess humankind when they happen to fall in love, perhaps it would save us from a lot of problems that arise later in relationships. This is the time we are so attentive to the other which is only comparable having a snake in one’s own room, the only difference being that the snake is dangerous but the lover is not. One could be said to interpret almost every breath of the Beloved. Not even science can explain the effect and sensation that grips Nicholas is no alien to this.
Nicholas is really human; he is a man who knows how to adopt himself to the given circumstances. Honest to goodness, who has never tried to find a common vocabulary when faced with people one didn’t know? Or have not spoken badly of a colleague just to gain favour of another? Who has never had the mask of his spotless behaviour drop for a moment and only to reveal the depth of want beneath? One who has not yet experienced this has nothing in common with humankind. That Nicholas is aware of these flaws in him only brings out his courage. Courage to squarely face himself and admit that that is he is made of. I wonder how many of us would do the same.
“How much of love is a trick of the mind, a mere feat of verbal acrobatics, to accommodate persons who just happen to cross our paths and who suit our needs at a particular moment in time? This is the question Shreve leaves me to grapple with.
I abhor Etna’s secrecy about almost everything in her life, yet I have cause to believe that it was watered by Nicholas’ lack of sensitivity to her. Fourteen years of marriage gave Nicholas a wife Etna but also a daughter Clara and a son Nicodemus, but still he was not content.
“I have remained so long under the loving protection of my mother and sisters and now, like many of my sex, I have forfeited certain necessary skills to go forward on my own”. The most important phrase I read in the novel. It brings out a very essential and deep human longing- the desire to be free to live one’s life. Alas a desire most often mistaken for selfishness.
I am filled with amusement at the self interest that each of us seeks in almost everything we do. This is brought home to me by Nicholas’ wedding to Etna. It appears more of a bargain than a commitment “I will be your husband and have the pleasure of calling you my wife Nicholas seems to state. I agree to be your wife in exchange for the freedom to be a mother and a mistress of my own home”, Etna would echo.
Following the envy that ate at Nicholas against his rival Professor Phillip Asher, candidate to the Dean of the Faculty of English Literature and Rhetoric) makes one wonder whether there is a being who can escape it. Condemning Nicholas at how he acted out his envy toward Phillip makes me recognize that I was fighting the feeling in myself. Are we all born with this feeling or do we learn it from society during our impressionable years? One can only live to explore.
Van Tassel’s need to possess Etna totally collides with her past brought to light. Van Tassel stumbles upon correspondence between Phillip and Etna I find this correspondence rather dull and lacking in romance I wonder that it made Nicholas suspicious. I find it too formal with words that are too well calculated that it leaves me longing for a more romantic flow of emotions.
Nicholas had had many lovers before he met Etna, yet it haunted him that Etna had a lover before him. Oh God save us from a male-dominate world. Anger arose in me when Etna in turn asked him whether he too had intimate relationships before. All he says is “that is not the point”. Will women ever be freed from this form of injustice? No wonder Etna had to break loose.
At times I symphasize with Nicholas that he put in so much love in a marriage that never worked, yet on the other hand I honestly admit that he deserved all he got for he was simply too possessive of the woman. Van Tassel will stoop to anything to hang onto his wife. He takes on a horrible plan of deception to win her back. In this no pretty scene, we see a desperate man reduced to desperate measures.
All He Ever Wanted is a powerful discovery of family life, the unbalanced forces of passion, the struggling power of unrevealed secrets, and the confounding aspects of infidelity and loss. All women ought to read this impressive book. It would help them take better informed decisions about who to marry.
The pace of the novel was just right. Shreve is a great author; letting you run with the story, and then brings you back into the tension until you can rise in amazement at the outcome. I appreciate the fact that the author did not provide an ending I expected. The story takes some complex directions and challenges the reader to think and feel at the same time.
Anita Shreve is also the author of Eden Close, Strange Fits of Passion, Where or When, Resistance, The Weight of water, The Pilot’s Wife, The Last Time They Met and Sea Glass.
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