Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad

"There was money to be released.  There was a court date pending.  There was suddenly a fleet of people in their home, in their bank accounts, her office.  Ana had begun to feel like a criminal, as if she were trying to steal this boy who had, in fact, been given to her, shockingly, without her request, even her knowledge.  Between a lunch and a dinner, Ana and James had become stewards of a human being."  Page 65

Children represent so much in today's society.  They can be a problem, even the downfall of a particular person should they have too many or not raise them to societal norms of how a child 'should' be brought up.  They can be the pride and joy or point of bragging for others.  Society judges people with children and those without: are the parents married, single, divorced, are they a good or ideal parent; and while these questions and thoughts are raised in people's minds, they are very rarely--if ever--discussed.  Everybody has Everything deals with what it means to be a parent and ultimately what it means to not want to be one.  It is the most contemporary and honest piece of fiction I've come across in a long time dealing with a universal issue that mostly flies under the radar. 

I'm at the beginning of the juncture in life when people ask about my plans to get married, settle down, have children.  (Much like the characters in the book I resist the near homicidal urges that these insensitive questions instill; only asked by those selfish and pretentious enough to assume that you're not happy as you are, or rather, as they are.)  I'm thirty-two years old, (my two and half year old nephew told me a few weeks ago that I was 'probably the oldest person ever') single, and have no children and just like everyone else in the world, people judge me based on this criteria.  It was remarkably easy to read Everyone Has Everything and relate to the characters: I see parts of myself in some, my friends, and real life people I know in others.  So much so, that I mentally renamed characters in the book with people I know from my own life. 

Ana and James are married, successful, working professionals who are unable to conceive a child.  Their status as 'married without children' is the single defining point of their relationship.  They each bring a unique background and preconceived ideas as to what it means to be a parent to their marriage.  After miscarriages and confirmation of Ana's 'inhospitable' womb they each get comfortable to the idea of marriage and life without children.  Ana chides her pride concerning her looks; knowing she doesn't merely look 'good for her age' but good in a further way: as she says, her body hasn't been ruined by having children.  James is made to endures multiple, obnoxious, public displays of maternity where women with strollers travelling in hordes, talking louder than necessary, and pushing everyone who isn't a mom with a baby away while remaining wholly oblivious to the atmosphere of repulsion they create.  These scenes seem to dominate parts of their world and serve as a constant reminder of their compulsive desire to defend their childless status.  (A particular scene in a coffee shop was so real that I've shared it with friends; all of whom could commiserate with James' pain.)  They both condemn the infuriating hypocrisy of fertile couples attitudes toward their capacity to both; have children and endlessly complain about them.  (A privilege denied to Ana and James.)  "It surprised Ana how often mothers played up their misery, as if she would find it comforting to pretend they would switch places with her."

Perhaps you can tell from my writing that I share many of Ana and James' points of view.
Ana recognizes she needs James as he is the embodiment of all the youth that was stolen from her own childhood.  His refusal to grow up is the source of Ana's attachment and all that she finds contemptible.  And then--quite out of nowhere--there is Finn.  A two year old boy whose father died in a car crash that left his mother in a coma.  Ana and James had forgotten that in case of the worst that they agreed to take guardianship of the boy.

While Finn, who is thrust in the middle of Ana and James' lives, is certainly the fulcrum of the story he is hardly the main character.  In fact, figuring out who this book is about is a bit of a chore.  Ana and James have built safe and comfortable lives for themselves; secure in the knowledge that Ana is infertile and adoption is a paperwork pipe dream; and then they have a child.  Not even a new born where there is a learning curve to watch, observe and develop but a two year old who has somehow come to understand he'll never see his father again, and that mommy is indefinitely unavailable.  James doesn't so much dive into fatherhood, rather he seems tailor made for it; a combination of desire and innate know-how.  Ana regards Finn as a oddity between repulsion and at best a nuisance and she knows from the beginning that her indifference to Finn will prove a harbinger to some tumultuous event in her life.

"Ana rooted around for some feeling to match James's, but came up with only a causal affection for this boy, for all boys, a mild curiosity that didn't demand investigation.  Hadn't there been a time when the sight of a pregnant woman had caused her to look away, yearning?  Hadn't she hidden in that hotel room after the final miscarriage and wept?  A chill crept over her body: She needed to find that person again, or James would be lost to her."  Page 54 

Finn changes every aspect of their relationship down to the smallest details that neither ever though they would have to consider.  Ana's job keeps her working for extremely long hours, and James--while his heart is in the right place and his relationship with Finn is phenomenal--is a bit too irresponsible (and has a bit too much fun too often) to be the sole care taker of a toddler. 

They grow apart; James is laid off; people on the periphery of their lives suddenly become very attractive; yet Finn remains: demanding and impossible to ignore. 

While Ana remains on the sidelines of the novel's events (it's James who visits Finn's mom in the hospital multiple times a week, takes Finn to day care, bathes him and puts him to bed among others chores that come with having children) it's her conflicted feelings for Finn and James' eager, blind of acceptance of Finn, that leads Ana to pushing James away.  It takes time, but Ana comes to realize what she deems a monstrous, and socially unacceptable truth: that she is a woman; she doesn't want children; and that there is nothing wrong with these fact coinciding.  While they both act out and exercise detrimental steps in their relationship I felt there was an undercurrent of 'James is ruining this marriage,' that didn't sit well with me.  Added to which Onstad's exploration of the male mindset, particularly in regards to sex, I found nothing short of bizarre, and a head-scratching source of entertainment that made me curious as to her source material or if the creation of James is just where her mind's imagination lead her.

There were a few near cliched extramarital affairs that I'd have rather seen avoided, with Ana'a subordinates taking interest in James personality and Ana's awkward--if not outright bad--flirting with the chaplain at her mother's nursing home.   There are plenty of ways relationships can grow apart without introducing sex with other people (like having a two year old dropped into your life), but it seems readers like sex so authors work it in when possible.  (It would be nice to see other routes explored.)  
The scenarios, the story arch, background and particularly the characters were all portrayed with an intense visceral feeling that made me think, 'I know these people.'  I was particularly happy at the book's conclusion when so many factors came into play in negative ways that even in a work that is so contemporary the author was able to wrestle some simulacrum of 'happily ever after.'  Reality and realism are all well and good, and certainly en vogue, but it's also nice from time-to-time to see an author indulge the idea that things can work out.  

Last year Kim told me to read Everyone Has Everything and I'm sad I waited so long to do so.  And while I certainly see myself putting this book in many peoples hands it will be the US edition set for release in June (in hopes of a better copy), as the Canadian edition I bought had enough typos to warrant mention.  (It's amazing how obvious, lack of punctuation can detract from a story.)  I don't come across works that discuss topics found in Everybody Has Everything very often and even if I did I doubt it would be done this well.  There's an abrupt lack of sentimentality yet keen observations that manage to endear the reader to the narrative without eye rolling or coming across as an essay.  

Save the date, June 23 2013, this is a book you want to read.   

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