All She Ever Wanted
By T.L. Cooper
I like fiction with a plot that moves quickly, spiky dialogue, humor, characters who don't take themselves too seriously. I really like when they make me laugh a bit, whether it is self-depreciating, or even a bit cruel. All She Ever Wanted (ASEW) is not on my usual literary menu. For me, ASEW was almost a visit to a bizarro Shang-Gri-La world, where everyone speaks earnestly about mundane things, Southern things, in serious fully formed sentences from which no satirical irony can be detected in the least.
It is not about the deep South, but the Border South, you can tell because the Border South is - well on the border - not the heart of Faulkner's darkness, but Kentucky Horse Country. It is page after page of descriptions of the paint on the walls, the color of the carpets, the plait on the dresses, the heels on the shoes. But unpleasantries between people are avoided like moldy leftovers. The novel was outside my usual reading comfort zone, but ultimately, and oddly, if I may say, it was satisfying. It is without question the most blatant work of 'women's fiction' I have ever read. I needed to read it. I think it gave me insight into the 'inner workings' of the women I have known and continue to know. Observing my reaction to it was a therapeutic exercise. It gave me insight into my own world view, of its blindspots, preconceptions, and prejudices.
All She Ever Wanted is a slow moving, Southern story about a self-involved, tightly wrapped, spoiled woman, who achieves worldly success at the price of – well - everything that is important in life, such as love and fun. Victoria Caldwell is the product of upper class, horsey, up-tight family, where appearances really count, and where the exterior social trappings - clothes, furniture, hairstyles, - are everything. The novel begins with Victoria musing about her past and we are taken back to her college years. She is date-raped by a frat boy, an event which casts a long shadow on her future romantic life. Then to make it much worse, she gets no support from her sorority sisters, and so that sours her trust in women as well. College would have been dismal but for her only friend, a black man her age, Daryn, who comes from a prosperous, functional southern family.
Daryn is demonstrably not gay, but his relationship with Victoria has all the outward markings of a stereotypical straight woman - gay man friendship. They never get together in bed, even though Victoria's dreams all point to that being what she really wants; but because of her entrenched southern womanhood 'thing', she can never have it. That longing is something Victoria would deny until she was blue in the face, but the evidence - her soapy bathtub daydreaming, and her constant obsessive need to be near Daryn indicates otherwise.
Tragic things happen, and Victoria never really breaks through. She tries to escape from her self-imposed trap that requires propriety in all things, and to truly live, but it doesn't happen - not until the very very end, which is presented as a final breakout for her but - as a reader, I have my doubts she really makes it. Throughout the 532 pages, she returns to her 'bread and butter' ways of coping –solitude, hot bubble baths, and long scenes played out in her head that always seem to justify her cold outwardness, which pushes away everyone and allows her to deny her own desires. My anger at Victoria eventually turned to pity.
It is a book about the modern South. There is a touch of Scarlette O'Hara in Victoria. She gets possession of her great-great grandmother's diaries which detail the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction and we read how her slave and Plantation owning family dealt with that transformation – and we see that self-pity and self-involvement is a long standing family trait.
I have half-southern roots myself and like Chis Rock describing why OJ murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, “I don't condone it – but I understand it.” By that I mean when reading about how Southerners are trapped by their own history and their devotion to backward, deluded and feudal romantic ideals and patterns of behavior, I understand it even if I reject being burdened with it. I have sat in my maternal grandmother's kitchen and eaten corn bread, home-made jam, honey-combed honey, and fresh eggs, and grits, and fatty fried ham and listened to the lyrical, half-true memories of my North Carolina kin and I felt the pull of the family, of the land and - well kinship - and depending on the day, it is as strongly imprinted on me as my New Jersey 'fooget-about-it' side. I do understand Victoria's cold refusal to surrender to her own humanity, and her need to 'measure up' to tradition and expectations that are unrealistic and soul destroying. But I don't condone it.
I was angry at Victoria through most of the whole read - but that doesn't mean I disliked the book. A good book makes you grow and understand things you didn't understand before. ASEW taught me some things or rather reflected back at me parts of humanity I tend to ignore otherwise.
The book is well crafted technically. Cooper is a fine sentence and paragraph honer. For the reader – it should have been more viciously and brutally edited. But then it wouldn't have been the flowery, endless search for a perfection that can never be found.