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All He Ever Wanted: A Novel Paperback – January 20, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

Anita Shreve's All He Ever Wanted reads like Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own told from the perspective of the husband. The wife gains a measure of freedom, but how does the repressive, abandoned husband feel about that freedom? Set in the early 1900s in the fictional New England college town of Thrupp, and narrated by the pompous Nicholas Van Tassel, All He Ever Wanted is at once an academic satire, a period novel, and a tale of suspense. Shreve's ability to nimbly hop through genres brings a liveliness to this story of love gone depressingly wrong. Van Tassel is an undistinguished professor of rhetoric at Thrupp College and a confirmed bachelor when he meets--in no less flamy a scenario than a hotel fire--the arresting Miss Etna Bliss. Immediately smitten, he woos and wins her. At least, he persuades her to become his wife. But Van Tassel hasn't really won her. Etna keeps her secrets and her feelings to herself. The extent of her withholding only becomes clear after a couple of kids and a decade or so of marriage. Then we find out that she's been creating a secret haven for herself all along. Van Tassel is in turn revealed--through his own priggish, puffed-up sentences--as something of a monster. The book is cleverly done; watching Etna through Van Tassel's eyes is like looking at beautiful bird from a hungry cat's point of view. But Van Tassel's voice might be too well written; he's pedantic and dull and snarky all at once, and by the end we find that we, like Etna, can't bear his company a minute longer. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In bestsellers such as Fortune's Rocks, Shreve has revealed an impeccably sharp eye and a generous emotional sensitivity in describing the moment when a man and a woman become infatuated with each. She is less successful this time out, perhaps because the epiphany is one-sided. Escaping from a New Hampshire hotel fire at the turn of the 20th century, Prof. Nicholas Van Tassel catches sight of Etna Bliss and is instantly smitten. She does not reciprocate his feeling, for she has her own unrequited lust, for freedom and independence. That they marry guarantees tragedy. Nicholas tells the story in retrospect, writing feverishly on a train trip in 1933 to his sister's funeral in Florida. His pedantic style is full of parenthetical asides, portentous foreshadowing and rhetorical throat. His erotic swoon commands sympathy, until it carries him past any definition of decency. He will do anything to bring down Philip Asher, his academic rival and the brother of Etna's true love, Samuel. He plays on prevailing anti-Semitism (the Ashers are Jewish), and he persuades his daughter, Clara, to claim that Philip touched her improperly, which besmirches not only Philip's reputation but Clara's as well. We see Etna herself only secondhand, except for some correspondence with Philip reproduced toward the end of the tale. Credit the author for making the point that Etna and her sisters had too little autonomy even to tell their own stories, but filtering Etna's experience through Nicholas's sensibility deprives the novel of intimacy and immediacy.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books (January 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316735736
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316735735
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (166 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #505,268 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Anita Shreve grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts (just outside Boston), the eldest of three daughters. Early literary influences include having read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton when she was a junior in high school (a short novel she still claims as one of her favorites) and everything Eugene O'Neill ever wrote while she was a senior (to which she attributes a somewhat dark streak in her own work). After graduating from Tufts University, she taught high school for a number of years in and around Boston. In the middle of her last year, she quit (something that, as a parent, she finds appalling now) to start writing. "I had this panicky sensation that it was now or never."

Joking that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejections from magazines for her short stories ("I really could have," she says), she published her early work in literary journals. One of these stories, "Past the Island, Drifting," won an O. Henry prize. Despite this accolade, she quickly learned that one couldn't make a living writing short fiction. Switching to journalism, Shreve traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she lived for three years, working as a journalist for an African magazine. One of her novels, The Last Time They Met, contains bits and pieces from her time in Africa.

Returning to the United States, Shreve was a writer and editor for a number of magazines in New York. Later, when she began her family, she turned to freelancing, publishing in the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine and dozens of others. In 1989, she published her first novel, Eden Close. Since then she has written 14 other novels, among them The Weight of Water, The Pilot's Wife, The Last Time They Met, A Wedding in December, Body Surfing, Testimony,and A Change in Altitude.

In 1998, Shreve received the PEN/L. L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction. In 1999, she received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey, and The Pilot's Wife became the 25th selection of Oprah's Book Club and an international bestseller. In April 2002, CBS aired the film version of The Pilot's Wife, starring Christine Lahti, and in fall 2002, The Weight of Water, starring Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Penn, was released in movie theaters.

Still in love with the novel form, Shreve writes only in that genre. "The best analogy I can give to describe writing for me is daydreaming," she says. "A certain amount of craft is brought to bear, but the experience feels very dreamlike."

Shreve is married to a man she met when she was 13. She has two children and three stepchildren, and in the last eight years has made tuition payments to seven colleges and universities.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Nancy R. Katz VINE VOICE on January 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Like Fortune's Rocks and Sea Glass, All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve is a book filled with wonderful characters set against a historical background of social mores and traditions. And as she did in he previous historical novels, the author offers her readers a wonderful novel and one that left me wishing for another book by Anita Shreve.
All He Ever Wanted begins during a fire when Nicholas Van Tassel, a professor at a small college in New Hampshire, spots a young woman and accompanies her home that evening. Almost immediately Nicholas becomes besotted with the woman Ms. Etna Bliss and begins courting her. From this point of the narrative, Shreve moves the scene to a time many years later as Nicholas recounts the story of his love for Etna on a train as he is bound for his sister's funeral in Florida. At this point Shreve becomes almost a modern day Edith Wharton as through Nicholas we come to learn about his views of society in the early 1900's through 1930. As readers, we watch as Nicholas becomes further obsessed with Etna, thwarts a rival for a competitive position at the college and eventually comes under scrutiny for a transgression he did many years before. And as these events are taking place we also watch as Nicholas' and Etna's relationship begins to spiral out of control and wonder how this will all be resolved. For in the end all Nicholas ever wanted is the love of Etna.
I highly recommend this book to those readers who have enjoyed Anita Shreve in the past and for those who may want to read her for the first time. The author has a wonderful ability to put her readers right between the pages of the book. In addition the narrative evokes the language and society of the 1900's. Shreve has done an excellent job of describing these events from the point of view of a man deeply in love and this book makes for a very worthwhile read. I enjoyed it so much that I rated it among my ten top favorite reads for 2003.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Barks Book Nonsense on June 15, 2004
Format: Audio CD
All He Ever Wanted begins with a hotel fire in the early 1900's. The narrator of the story (who is recounting his past while en route to his sister's funeral) bachelor Nicholas Van Tassel, a stuffy professor at a snotty boys' school, is inside the hotel when the blaze begins but leaves unscathed. During this tragedy where twenty people perish in a fiery death he meets the woman of his dreams, Etna Bliss.
Etna's "handsome" face, her lovely waist and her other womanly attributes haunt his every thought. Even her name, Bliss, brings lusty thoughts to his mind (and starts my skin to crawling). His infatuation is all consuming and before long he begins to pursue her with all of the gusto of a starving dog drooling over a choice bit of meat. She eventually agrees to a date where he learns, a bit to his dismay, that she has a brain as well as fine breasts and is surprisingly literate. They read stories together and seem to get along well but when he makes a move or turns the conversation towards the personal she immediately gives him the cold shoulder. I should add that Nicholas is described as the most un-athletic man on earth with a slight paunch and a balding pate. The sexual attraction seems entirely one-sided and a bit creepy. At this point I would've put the book aside unfinished as I found Nicholas Van Tassel boring beyond belief and far too pompous. However, since I was listening to this in its unabridged format and I was stuck in traffic I continued to torture myself with Nicholas Van Tassel's words (expertly read by a narrator who reads in a purposely haughty way).
Despite the fact that Etna does not return his feelings of undying love he insists that they marry and, oddly enough, she agrees! Thus begins their awkward life together.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Wendy Kaplan on February 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Anita Shreve simply does not write ordinary books. Even her lesser efforts tend to leave the reader gasping for air at the end--and "All He Ever Wanted," one of her best, in my opinion, is breathtaking in the same shocking way.
Written entirely from the point of view of a stodgy male college professor circa 1900, this is the story of a passion so intense, so unlike the writer himself, that it is scarcely believable, especially when related in the stilted flowery language of the day.
Nicholas Van Tassel, a rather ordinary pedantic with nothing particularly unusual about him, happens to be in a hotel restaurant when it catches fire. This single pivotal episode in his otherwise unremarkable life changes him forever--it is during the rescue effort that he encounters Miss Etna Bliss, and falls head over heels into a passion that borders on, indeed IS, an obsession.
Hampered by the extreme rules of etiquette governing proper men and women of the day, Van Tassel nevertheless pursues Miss Bliss, finally persuading her to marry him despite her the fact that, as she honestly tells him, she does not love him. Love will come, thinks Van Tassel, hardly able to believe his luck in winning his prize. And that hope, that fantasy, that overwhelming obsession of his entire being, eventually destroys the narrator, his wife, and his entire family.
Shreve stays in character completely and thoroughly, managing to evoke the failings of the man himself, the restrictions of the society in which he lives, and the hopelessness of his obsession without ever once betraying herself. It is safe to say that the author stays well in the background while letting Van Tassel tell his own tragic story.
I consider this book a minor masterpiece. Shreve is an acquired taste, I know--but truly innovative and absolutely original in every book she writes. "All He Ever Wanted" is no exception.
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