It could happen to any of us. Keep that in mind when reading this novel.
Nina is a loving wife and mother. She is also wealthy. Obscenely wealthy. Given her squarely-middle class origins, this makes her more than a little uncomfortable.
Tom is a single dad struggling to make a living as a carpenter and to raise his teenage daughter. Needless to say, the latter is the more strenuous undertaking – it would be even if his job involved wrestling flesh-eating aliens with his bare hands.
Lyla (Tom’s daughter) is a teenage girl. And if that weren’t a hellish enough endeavor, she is also the scholarship kid at an elite private school in Nashville – the same school where Nina’s son, Finch, reigns as the golden boy. To add a boulder to an uphill hike, her mother’s presence in her life is, at best, intermittent.
Because of technology (and cruelty), the lives of these three characters are forever changed when a shocking photo of Lyla makes its way around school. (Don’t judge: everyone has a camera these days.) Nina’s world – and, perhaps more importantly, her worldview– is turned upside down when Finch is accused of sending the picture. Tom knows the odds are stacked against him, but he still decides to come forward and protect his daughter – even if it means going against her wishes. And Lyla’s predicament is, indisputably, the most heartbreaking of all. Her instinct is to let it go, to avoid the situation. The photo might be humiliating, but the idea of a trial before the school’s Honor Council is worse. Just imagine being a teenager again (a.k.a. a walking bundle of hormones, longing, and confusion) and you’ll no doubt empathize.
At the heart of this novel is the most challenging of questions: what happens when your fiercest instinct – to protect your child – is in conflict with your most deeply held values?
But there are other themes, too.
The complex technological challenges faced by today’s youth. Social inequality. The wealth gap. Feminism. Toxic masculinity. America’s tendency to mistake culture for race – and it’s quick propensity to politicize any conflict. How children will – whether we want them to or not – absorb their parents’ behaviors. The possibility of redemption. The power of a mother’s love. This book tackles all of these issues and still manages to be a light, refreshing read.
All We Ever Wanted is a skillfully woven story, filled with flawed, utterly relatable characters (I dare you not to root for Lyla), provocative insights, and a gripping plot. And the writing is delightful. If you are familiar with Ms. Giffin’s work* you know her style is crisp, clear, and smooth. I am convinced that she could make a trip to the grocery store compelling: she’d make me cry over kale and root for a character’s quest for queso dip. She is that good an author.
If you are in the mood for an unputdownable book, look no further. Curl up with a glass of iced tea (or prosecco, I won’t judge – in fact, I just might join you) and allow yourself to be swept away.
I highly recommend it.
* = If you are not familiar with Ms. Giffin’s work, I envy you. It means you get to read her novels for the first time! Start with Baby Proof. Everyone thinks that Something Borrowed and Something Blue are the best ones, but they’re wrong (though these two are also enticing reads).