All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin is such a fascinating and relevant story. A photo of a drunk, partially undressed teenage girl, labelled with a racist caption, surfaces at the elite Windsor Academy, and the novel deals with the fallout on three characters: Nina, the wealthy mother of the boy who took the photo; Tom, the working class father of the girl in the photo; and Lyla, the girl herself, who is at Windsor Academy on scholarship.
I love how nuanced all of their responses to the incident are, and how their responses are so influenced by class and gender issues. Nina had a middle class small town upbringing and while she married a wealthy tech entrepreneur, she never fully felt comfortable with their wealth. An incident in her past also makes her particularly sympathetic to Lyla, and utterly horrified at what her son Finch did. So when Finch doesn’t seem too fazed by the incident, and Nina’s husband Kirk just wants to pay people off to sweep the incident under the rug, Nina isn’t just angry, she’s disgusted at the careless way in which her family abuses their privilege. I liked that about her because so often the mother character immediately goes into protective mode for her child, no matter what they did, so I like that Nina takes a longer-term, moralistic view and wants to see her son punished now in order to build his character and ethical framework for the future. I did wish she was a bit more torn up about her response, or a bit more invested in a lighter punishment. It seemed almost an easy decision for her to risk her son’s losing his spot at Princeton and potentially gaining a permanent mark as a sex offender.
Tom was also an interesting character. I sympathized with the hardships he faced as a single dad, and very much respected him for working multiple jobs to support his daughter. I fully understand why he’d be out for Finch’s blood after the incident, and I love that his desire for revenge was fuelled not just by his love for his daughter but by the major chip on his shoulder towards rich people. Similar to Nina’s relationship with Finch, I thought Tom’s relationship with Lyla was very well handled. I love how he balances disciplining his daughter for going to a party and drinking without his permission and providing his daughter with all the support she needs for the consequences of her actions. Giffin does a great job with Tom and Lyla’s conversations; it’s very clear how much he loves his daughter and wants to do the best for her, but may not be 100% sure how. I very much respect him for advocating for justice at Windsor Academy even when it went against Lyla’s wishes, and I also respect Lyla for calling him out on his motivations not being fully about her welfare. I thought that, given the size of the chip on his shoulder and what had happened to his daughter, he’d take longer than he did to warm up to Nina, and I wasn’t a big fan of the pseudo-sexual tension that popped up every now and again, but overall, I like how things turned out.
I thought Lyla was the standout star of this novel, which I didn’t expect to be my reaction. I love how she appears the most clear-headed of the three perspectives, and the most open to hearing Finch’s version of the truth. I like that she believed in the possibility of Finch’s innocence not just because she had a crush on him or wanted to fit in at school, but because she knew the various people at the party and was confident enough to trust her own instincts about them. She was remarkably mature for a high school freshman, and I like that while she was the victim in the incident, she also seemed the most well-equipped to handle the fallout.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.