Lately, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult dystopias and contemporary romances. It seemed like a perfect time for something different and a return to modern literary fiction. The lucidly written Everybody Has Everything, by Katrina Onstad, is a fine example of this genre. Unlike the protagonists of a romance or YA dystopia (in the latter, the world might be ending but there’s usually room for a good love triangle), Onstad’s characters aren’t as concerned with finding their true loves, living happily ever after, or saving the world. In this kind of story, it’s hard enough to save oneself.
Parental love overshadows romantic love in this text; indeed, a phrase from the book’s first line, “become parents,” is like an engine generating the whole story. This parental transformation occurs when a toddler named Finn comes to live with main characters Ana and James for an unspecified period; a car accident has killed his father and seriously injured his mother. (The paperback’s back cover has a great non-spoilery interpretation of what “becoming parents” does for its protagonists.)
But work helps to define James and Ana, too. When the novel begins, James has recently lost his TV journalist job, which he’d thrived upon. He’s struggling to find his way, and becoming responsible for Finn gives him purpose he lacks. Ana, in contrast to James, is a research lawyer who’s happier the more she works. She sees the work and worry around raising a child in a way James doesn’t. They both seemed very real to me, and I found myself sympathizing with both of them—or at least understanding where they were coming from—when they disagreed.
Onstad divides the novel into sections according to times of year, beginning in the autumn and jumping forward across months. The strength of her writing is underscored by the way each title resonates with the events of its corresponding section. The first section’s title, “The Day After Labor Day,” also brings out many of the book’s themes. It honors workers; it implies a return to work; and it can be a reminder of the many kinds of work related to parenting, from the work of childbirth to the work of raising a child.
The final irony of Everybody Has Everything is the title phrase isn’t true for these characters. No matter how much they do have or achieve, each of them is missing something, or someone, vital. It seems to me the book’s title is an inverted description of the characters’ lives: everybody does not have everything. Nor does everything come easily.
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Grand Central Publishing. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.