I have just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One, and this may prove to be one of those novels that haunts me from here on out. You know, there are some stories that stay with you for a week or so until you begin reading something else, and there are others that embed themselves in some neuron in your brain, and you relive their plot lines or remember the most memorable scenes years after turning the last page.
For me, Cold Mountain is like that, and The Grapes of Wrath, A Time To Kill and Slaughterhouse Five. There are others, I’m sure, but those are the top picks at the moment—maybe some of my neurons are sluggish today.
And now Every Last One can take its rightful place in my internal library.
I read the book on the recommendation of my sister-in-law, who said that just when I would feel like giving up on the thing, something shocking would happen. Boy, was she right. My little paperback copy has 300 pages of actual story (never mind the reading notes—you shouldn’t need notes to read a novel, I say), and I was well into the first 100 pages when I was yawning. Turning the page and reading and turning the next one and saying all right already.
I would have given up had it not been for the promise of some climactic moment that would assure I’d not want to put the book down. And then, on page 108, it happened. I won’t tell you what, exactly, although as the story builds, you’ll probably guess on some level. It was at that moment that I understood the structure of this remarkable story.
100-plus pages of seemingly benign character descriptions, with details of everyday dialogue and descriptions of everyday activities, might seem excessive, but this story needs you to be invested in the characters, to feel as if you really know them and would miss them if they were gone. Had the pivotal action happened on page 25, you wouldn’t care so much. You would wonder about the legal ramifications or expect a televised trial or some form of justice, but you wouldn’t feel any real emotion beyond curiosity.
But because Quindlen was allowed to indulge in her character development, you are likely to react audibly when bad things happen to these people you’ve come to know. At least, that’s what I did. I reacted out loud and set the book down and stood up from my reading chair. “Holy……!” And then I quickly sat down again and went right back to reading to find out what happened next.
Good for Quindlen for weaving a story that makes one person care about another, even if that other person is fictional. I firmly believe no character is truly fictional because he or she is always based on someone actually living, or the reader can connect with the character as someone remarkably real.
And good for Quindlen’s agent and editor, whoever they may be, for allowing her to write a book that doesn’t grab the reader with action on page 1. I would love to have heard their earliest discussions on the manuscript, and I believe Quindlen wouldn’t have gotten far if she had not already been known as a successful author. Agents typically ask for just the first 30 pages of a book or even just a query letter with no actual text at all. How can you possibly know if a book is worth the trouble based solely on a query letter?
Imagine an agent receiving 30 pages of blabbity blabbity and thinking, “hey, this story is gripping. Sign her up.” Let this book, now firmly placed on my mental bookshelf, be a lesson to impatient agents and publishers. Sometimes a story needs time to build.