All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley
One decision by a high school student with his entire life ahead of him changes everything for the characters in this book. Nina Browning is happily living in a rich person’s bubble in Nashville – her husband sold his company for millions, she spends her nights at galas, and her adored teenage son is headed to Princeton next year. Tom Volpe’s daughter, Lyla, goes to the same school as Nina’s son, but Tom lives a much different life – working super hard to support Lyla as a single father after her mother left when she was little. When Nina’s son takes an incriminating photo of Lyla and posts it with a racist caption, their lives collide and none of them will ever be the same.
This is going to sounds strange, but for me, All We Ever Wanted was equal parts entertaining and obnoxious. It has all the classic elements of an Emily Giffin novel – intriguing characters who make interesting/horrible choices and learn from their mistakes, snappy dialogue, a smart female lead character, plots that feature elements of stuff that could happen to just about anyone, and a tidy resolution that leaves everyone feeling (mostly) happy at the end. I may be simplifying things a bit, but for me this was a really basic story. Where it gets interesting is what Giffin chose to do with the development of the characters over the course of the novel.
In the beginning of the book, Nina is, to put it bluntly, selfish and spoiled. She wants to believe she’s a good person, because she was raised modestly, loves her family, donates to charity, all of that jazz. But her husband made a TON of money and now they are living an insanely fancy life that she doesn’t exactly know how to handle. She and her husband have indulged their son to the point where he thinks he can do whatever he wants and can buy his way out of it (he can, and they do). At some point Nina realizes that she can’t go on living her life in this way, but it was annoying to me that she only realized this when she started believing her husband was cheating on her and the fact that her son is not a good human being was thrown in her face by this horrible thing he did. It took these huge things to happen to her for her to look at her life and begin to rethink what her priorities are/should be. I did feel for Nina but I couldn’t help being so annoyed by her for so much of the book. She was so oblivious to the realities of her own life, although once she started to rethink things, I did like the person she started to become.
The whole wrong side of the tracks thing about Tom and Lyla was also not my favorite element of the book. The mixed-race girl lives in the poor side of town while all of the white kids life in the rich part? Boooooring. I don’t know. It was just too predictable and a bit overdone in my opinion. I liked Tom and Lyla but there was nothing about their story or their relationship that really surprised me or made me think.
I know it seems like I’m hating on this book but I did enjoy the reading experience. I liked getting to know these characters and following their trajectory through what was a very difficult time in all of their lives. Giffin can be a bit formulaic but the formula really works for her, and I can see why she has so many fans (I’m one of them!). While All We Ever Wanted had some issues, I definitely had fun with it and liked the book.