All We Ever Wanted Was Everything: A Review

 

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown (ISBN: 9780091920708, Published 2008)

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown tells the story of three women from the same family, each who is about to face major crises in their lives – crises that they hide from one another. Janice Miller is the mother of two girls and is married to a man whose pharmaceutical company was just floated on the stock exchange, moving them from well-off to majorly wealthy. Janice rose from nothing and dedicated her life to being the perfect wife, hostess and mother. She is the kind of woman who never has a hair out-of-place and throws the perfect soiree.

Appearances are everything to Janice and she holds her own in the enclave of Santa Rita, home to the affluent and elite. Then after all the sacrifices she has made being her husband’s right and left hand, he files for divorce on the day his fortune is made and reveals that he has been having an affair with Janice’s best friend. Suddenly Janice is on a downward spiral, deep in denial and turning to illegal substances to get her through the day.

Janice’s oldest daughter, Margaret, is in her late twenties, lives in LA and is the editor of her own magazine – Snatch – a feminist magazine for young women. She is up to her eyeballs in debt and owes thousands of dollars to her ex-boyfriend and numerous credit card companies. A high achiever her whole life, she is on the brink of losing everything she has worked so hard for. But she refuses to ask her parents for help. To rub salt in her wounds, all her friends have moved on from being struggling, poor twenty-somethings to seriously successful people. Margaret is desperate to hold onto her dreams, even if that means keeping up the pretence.

The youngest daughter, Lizzie, is fourteen and has her fair share of problems. Not only is she coping with her dad leaving and her mother starting to act increasingly erratic, but somehow she has gone from the overweight girl in class to a girl attracting a lot of attention from boys. The kind of bad attention that can lead to all sorts of labels. Lizzie calls her sister Margaret to come home and help with their mother. Now there are three ticking time bombs under the same roof.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is the second book I’ve read by Janelle Brown. I recently reviewed her second book This is Where We Live which I thought was a great read. So was this book.  It is a book that is completely character-driven. The Miller women are frustrating but you really do care what happens to them. The book is told from the point-of-view of each character and the tension builds and builds, carrying you forward through the pages.

Again, as in This is Where We Live, I got irritated by the characters’ inertia when they were faced with problems. They are certainly a family who like swimming in denial and not facing things head on. But I suppose there are a lot of people out there who would watch their debts rise and do nothing or who would want their cheating husband to return home so they could keep up appearances. It had a ‘Desperate Housewive’s feel without the far-fetched plots. This book examined the stuff that can and does happen to people every day – regardless of whether they live in the lap of luxury or not.

This is Where We Live: A Review

This is Where We Live by Janelle Brown (ISBN: 9780091920692, 316 pages, Published 2010)

This is Where We Live by Janelle Brown opens with an earthquake in LA, a physical shifting of the ground beneath the two protagonists’ feet. Little do Claudia (a film-maker) and her musician husband Jeremy know that major upheaval is about to enter their lives. Like many young couples in their thirties, they have been living on borrowed money and borrowed time, chasing the dreams of their twenties in the hope that somehow everything would work out. They are still in the early years of marriage, living in a modest home on the outskirts of LA that the bank lent them a lot of money to buy.

Claudia has just released her first film and dreams of her little indie flick finding big box office success. Jeremy works by day in a low-paying design job. In his spare time he is working on an album with his band and is eager to replicate the minor success he had in his twenties as the member of a band that was popular with cool college kids. Critical acclaim did not lead to much money, but for Jeremy it’s all about the music anyway. He is hanging onto his artistic dream and is terrified of becoming ‘boring.’

The creative, passionate bubble Claudia and Jeremy live in bursts when Claudia’s film bombs and no one wants to finance a second film deal. Then as the recession hits America, suddenly they can’t pay their mortgage and the same bank who lent them oodles of money is now circling like a vulture.

Claudia is determined to do whatever it takes to hold onto her slice of the American dream, even if this means abandoning film-making and going to work as a high school teacher. Suddenly they are advertising for a roommate and moving into their guest bedroom. Jeremy is not pleased by this new, practical Claudia and believes she is selling out. He is all for losing the house, going bankrupt and the two of them heading overseas. When Jeremy’s brilliant, crazy ex-girlfriend Aoki sends him an email, Jeremy starts to think about the life he has versus the life he wants. Aoki is now a well-renowned artist living the dream.

Will Claudia and Jeremy survive this harsh new world and give up on their dreams? Or if they get the chance to keep their artistic pursuits alive, will they take it – no matter what the consequences are to themselves, other people and their marriage?

Sometimes I sympathised with these characters and sometimes I wanted to give them both a good shake. I wanted to tell Claudia to stop being so understanding of her husband’s failure to step up to the plate. Yet at times I could understand Jeremy’s point-of-view and his desire to not give up on his dreams. Then there is a twist in the story that will leave you raging at Jeremy for his selfishness. Another time I found myself wondering if I would do what Claudia did in a bid to keep her film-making dreams alive. The author certainly kept me interested enough to keep turning the pages and reading.

I could relate to the economic realities that the characters in the book faced. But the minor letdown for me was how this was ultimately resolved. It’s just something that wouldn’t happen for most of us in real life. I wonder how the story would have gone if there wasn’t this ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. (I’m trying to be subtle here and not give the plot away.)

I found This is Where We Live sitting on the shelf at my local library. It’s the first library book I’ve borrowed in years as I am trying to curb my book buying – it’s funny that I chose a book which is about the financial pressure so many people are experiencing. I was drawn in by Janelle Brown’s writing and liked how the plot alternated between Claudia and Jeremy’s point-of-view, telling two sides of the same story.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the back of the book which sums up This is Where We Live more eloquently than my rambling review:

This is Where We Live speaks volumes about the mess of modern existence. It’s one of those rare novels in which life as it is lived now is portrayed with such clarity, such precision – and which gets all the material and psychological details so damn right.” – Douglas Kennedy, bestselling author of The Pursuit of Happiness