Another (and last for the year) guest post from pinch-hitter Joy Piedmont. This time, Joy raves about a book that made the contenda list with three stars but mostly deserves recognition as a serious buzz book. I’m a long time fan of Adele Griffin’s, and this is, I think, a stronger candidate than her last few YA titles when it comes to award chat. But I’ll let Joy explain why…
All You Never Wanted: it’s a gem of a title, isn’t it? It’s a warning, a temptation, and a promise written directly at you, pulling you in.
And Adele Griffin’s latest has more than a great title. It’s an engaging study of two teenage sisters told from their alternating perspectives. Attention-seeking Thea and anxiety-stricken Alex seem to be direct descendants of Edith Wharton’s characters. (It’s no surprise that in a recent online Q&A, Griffin revealed that she went through a Wharton phase, and discussed how that may have influenced AYNW). Like Wharton’s, Griffin’s characters are complex and fully realized in an exploration of wealth, privilege, class, desire, jealousy, and anxiety.
In the end, it’s a gorgeous little TARDIS of a novel.
(Bigger on the inside, for you non-Whovians).
Set in present day Greenwich, CT, AYNW depicts a world that is only slightly stylized. If, like me, you’re familiar with the geographical landscape, you’ll recognize some names and places, but that’s not the only reason why the novel feels authentic. Each place has its own flavor and texture, from the overdone interiors of Camelot—the sisters’ nickname for their new home—to a sprawling country home, to the top floor walk-up apartment of a young girl in the Bronx, Griffin offering just enough description to put you in places that you will recognize.
The settings are authentic, but Griffin’s characters are what make this book stand out.
The Parrott sisters were close once, but Griffin subtly implies that their mother’s marriage to a wealthy man has changed each girl and altered the family dynamic. It’s never explicitly stated, but little clues appear throughout the text. Alex and Thea used to work together at a clothing store. The girls used to have movie nights. Alex used to encourage Thea’s creative writing. Griffin drops these hints into the story quietly and always in harmony with the immediate business of the scene. Early in the book, Thea is trying to calm Alex during an anxiety attack, and Alex says to her, “That’s like one of those sweet things you used to say, Thealonius.” (p. 8). It’s a useful piece of dialogue and a neat bit of character development, introducing an old pet nickname and a glimpse of a Thea who hasn’t always been a popularity-driven liar.
The tension between the sisters is the driving pulse of AYNW. Griffin is adept at switching between the two voices and styles that characterize each girl.
Thea’s voice, self-absorbed and always wanting, is in first person: “I didn’t even know what I wanted. I was just so used to looking for things to want” (p. 81). Griffin encapsulates something so sad and familiar in this statement; the longing of a girl who has everything but still feels empty.* Thea’s constant need for more is juxtaposed with Alex’s guilt and shame. Griffin writes Alex’s chapters in third person limited, keeping the tone distanced but revealing. While Thea talks to the reader like a co-conspirator, readers become voyeurs into Alex’s mind. Like her sister, she is trying to alter herself, but instead of looking for things to fill the void, Alex is becoming void. Her anorexia and social anxiety, which keep her away from friends and school, are fueled by her need for control and the feeling that she’s an undeserving fraud.
Both girls are so fully developed, so real, but what is most impressive is Griffin’s grasp of interpersonal nuances, using the fact that we’re never the same person with everyone we know; we make tiny adjustments depending on our audience. Around her friend, Palmer—and it is crystal clear what kind of girl she is when Griffin writes, “she’s not a talker, she’s a hand-grabber, a face-searcher” (p. 67)—Alex is a little more of the popular girl Thea aspires to be, but she is also more guarded, terrified that her secret will be exposed.
And that big secret? Thankfully, Griffin doesn’t dwell on the mystery for long, and when it is revealed that Alex suffered extreme public humiliation—a dressing down from a snooty editor and public urinary incontinence were involved—at a private fashion show, it is shocking and mundane at the same time. It is indeed an embarrassing incident, but it actually sounds like something that could happen. Certainly Griffin is straddling the line between realistic and sensational here, but I bought it as a believable catalyst for Alex’s anxiety because I believe in Alex as a character. In that moment she felt exposed as the rich girl who hasn’t earned her privilege and she believed that she actually deserved the punishment from the editor and from her body.
But really, what happened to Alex was just a confirmation of something she had been feeling anyway: that her life was changing too fast, beyond her control. “…even before Haute, she’d been struggling for a toehold against the landslide of Camelot and everything in it.” (p.24).
Griffin isn’t clear on the timeline of events, but based on the textual evidence, it seems that Alex and Thea’s mother re-married the wealthy Arthur within the two years prior to the novel’s events. Thea is sixteen in the book and the girls worked at Topshop before the marriage (however, there is either a discrepancy here or an oversight. In Connecticut, where the girls live, labor laws prohibit 14-year-olds from working in the kind of job that Thea held at Topshop. So, she was either 15 when they worked there or 14 and this is just a technical gaffe. Minor issues, but they add to the murky timeline, which some might view as a flaw). With all this in mind, we can glean that Alex starts to date Josh as a kind of penance for her privilege, which is really no basis for a relationship at all.
Josh, a typical rakish hot bad boy, is just another source of tension between Alex and Thea, but Griffin uses him to explore the nature of jealousy. He serves the novel as a symbol (which helps to explain why he’s one of the least developed characters in the novel), of the “way to not-have” (p. 24) that Alex is attempting, and the pre-privileged identity that Thea is running from. At first, Griffin leads us to believe that Thea is jealous of Alex because she wants Josh, but by the end of the novel it becomes evident that really Thea is jealous of Josh and the space he fills in Alex’s life, the space she no longer occupies. Griffin presents jealousy as wanting mixed with anger and resentment, an emotional cocktail that leads to desperate acts.
The events of AYNW are like a chain reaction starting from the girls’ sudden acquisition of wealth, but there is no simple message of “money corrupts” here. Thea flippantly remarks that her “dreams were prepaid in full,” and this is what Griffin is really interested in: what happens when you remove the drive and need from desire? When your dreams have no financial limits, what do you dream of?
Alex and Thea struggle with this question throughout the novel and it is not resolved at the end. Although Alex’s burgeoning relationship with the do-gooder Xander (I doubt it’s a coincidence that his name is the second half of Alex’s) begins to bring her back from darkness, her running away with him allows her to continue to turn away from the messiness that wealth has brought her and the wreck that is her sister. Is it an act of liberation or denial, or both? There is no authorial judgment here, leaving readers to come to their own conclusion.
Of course, Thea is left behind, not getting what she wants in the end. Because what she really wants, her driving need, is her sister. Wealth has changed the needs of each girl, but it’s made Thea long for the time when she and Alex only needed each other. At the novel’s end, having entrapped Josh to the play the role of attacker (and possibly rapist), Thea’s biggest lie still fails to win Alex’s sympathy. In this moment, we pity the girl who will do anything to heal the loneliness she feels.
Honestly, I feel like I haven’t even cracked the surface of what’s going on in this novel. There’s Xander and the Empty Hands volunteer organization where Alex tutors a weatherman-worshipping boy. There’s a great scene where Thea daydreams a ridiculous lie. And I could go on and on about the (wonderfully) suffocating atmosphere and pacing. Occasionally the dialogue feels clunky, particularly in the writing for the teenage girls, but AYNW is such a rich exploration of character and theme that I can forgive some other minor transgressions.
It certainly deserves a seat at the table with the ten books on our Pyrite list. When I weigh up the amazing character study and the sense of place and entrapment Griffin has wrought here, I have to wonder if this might be the year (the woefully under-recognized) Griffin cracks the Printz. This may be a dark horse, but it has my vote.
But enough from me now. Weigh in and I’ll see you in the comments!
*Wharton wrote something similar about her character, Undine Spragg, in The Custom of the Country: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” I like to think Thea is Undine reincarnated for a new generation.