Anita Shreve’s writing has a nuanced quality about it. The narrator in her novel All He Ever Wanted is not a likeable man. It’s difficult to narrate a story from a certain point of view and project that point of view in a bad light. Shreve’s writing manages to do just that through carefully shaded characters and language.
Nicholas Van Tassel meets his future wife Etna Bliss in a disastrous hotel fire that kills a few people. She makes a huge impression on him and he decides she is all he ever wanted. In a classic scene, he catches her during a moment of vulnerability and persuades her to marry him. But in his joy of succeeding in his quest he cannot see beyond his narrow desires and chooses not to notice Etna’s lack of warmth in her reply and her warning - she tells him she cannot love him, but accepts his offer of marriage. He ignores that warning, confident that he can make her love him over time.
The next decade and a half is spent in a marriage that is normal on the surface. But beneath the routine of a marital relationship in the early decades of the 20th century, Nicholas is aware that all is not well. Slowly the plot unravels and Etna’s inability to forget her past and embrace her new life uninhibitedly coupled with her husband’s jealousy and moral ineptitude plunge them into depths from where they cannot extricate themselves. There are times when it is possible to feel sorry for Nicholas and resentment towards Etna (there are things she does that are unacceptable in a normal marriage – buy a house to be used as a private retreat without her husband’s knowledge, for example). But Shreve’s sympathies very clearly lie with Etna – a woman who cannot marry the man she loves and is forced to marry a man she cannot love.
Nicholas is a pompous and sometimes bigoted fool; he longs for things that the reader feels he does not deserve – the dean’s post, Etna and a storybook-perfect life. And when he sees all of these slipping away from him, he descends even further into a morass of dishonesty and deception.
Written as Nicholas’ memoir in his later days, All He Ever Wanted is an interesting and sometimes intense exploration of the inner life of a couple in the early years of 20th century