All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffen (Ballentine Books, 2018)
How much is “too much” to give our children when raising them today? When we buy them the latest pair of sneakers, a cell phone when they are ten years old, or give them an expensive car when they turn seventeen, what are we teaching them about the value of having to work for something they think that they want so that they can keep up with the latest trends and be seen as “cool” with their peers? And speaking of values, when teens spend all of their spare time on Snapchat and Instagram, or surfing the net without parental monitoring, are we slamming the door on their abilities to develop a moral compass?
These are just a few of the questions about contemporary parenting that Emily Giffen poses in her latest best-seller All We Ever Wanted. This is a book that grabs the reader from page one and is impossible to put down until the story ends. All We Ever Wanted is a novel that readers will want to discuss in book clubs, at lunches with their friends, and that teachers will want to use in their classrooms to debate the topic of how much freedom is too much, and are teens today incapable of feeling empathy for others, and denying personal humiliation in an effort to be popular.
Using the multiple character point of view to divide the book into chapters, the story takes unexpected turns that outrage and shock the reader. Nina is the first character whom we meet. Mother of the handsome teenager, Finch, Nina prides herself and her successful husband, Kirk, in having raised a son who has been admitted recently to prestigious Princeton University. Finch appears to be the perfect child until Nina is accosted at a benefit to help prevent teen suicide by one of her society “friends,” Kathie Parker. Kathie wastes no time in shattering Nina's perception of family perfection.
Kirk has posted a picture on Snapchat of an underclassman from his posh school. The young woman in the photo is posed in a compromising position and the caption that Finch has used with the picture is offensive and racist. But when Nina and Kirk race home to confront their son, his cavalier attitude towards the incident show a complete lack of understanding of what he has done to Layla, the girl in the picture, as well as the effect this extreme error in judgment may have on his future.
As Nina probes into the incident, she questions her parenting skills. “I couldn't help feeling that I had lost my son . . . I longed to go back. Do things differently. Give Finch fewer material possession and more of my time. I would have tried harder to keep talking to him, even when he no longer wanted to.” (p. 123)
But Nina's journey is not just about her son's values; it is a quest to sift through her own. When she meets with Layla's father, Tom, a menial laborer, she begins to compare his simple life and core values with her shallow life as a society celeb in Nashville, and ultimately her marriage to a man who has become ego-centric, controlling, and lives by the motto that “money can buy everything.”
In the Afterword of the novel, Giffen quotes Jackie Kennedy on the importance of being a good parent. “If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much,” Kennedy stated. (p.342) Giffen adds, “This means many things to me, but above all, it means teaching my children by my own example and showing them that it is more important to be both kind and true to themselves (and their causes), than it is to achieve popularity with their peers or quantifiable success.” (p. 342) While parents want desperately to shield their children from pain as they grow up, sometimes we much step back and suffer silently as we allow them to face up to whatever they have done in order for them to learn the importance of non-violent communication, empathy, and making the best choices.
While I laughed through Giffen's earlier works, including Something Borrowed, Something Blue, and Baby Proof, All We Ever Wanted is a more substantive novel, worthy of discussion and debate. The book also illustrates a deepening in Giffen's skills as a story teller who has something of value to put on the table to prompt her readers to contemplate what is truly important in life.