CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 15. . . .December 15, 2017
All That Was.
New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), January, 2018.
375 pp., hardcover, $23.50.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
She was turning it into a joke and I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want her to turn this feeling I was having into something cheap and stupid, embarrassing and awkward. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I stared at her. I wanted to turn my back on her and walk away. Instead, I put my arm around her shoulders.
“Enough,” I said. I faked a laugh. I played with her hair until I felt her relax again.
I didn’t need Soup.
I had Piper.
We had each other.
We were going to the year-end dance together next week in toothpaste-green circa 1987 prom dresses we found at the thrift store that still stank of ozone-depleting hair spray. Mine had a stain on the bodice, lipstick or a pink drink that someone probably regretted. Hers had a broken zipper that needed to be repaired.
But they were perfect.
We were perfect.
I grabbed her hand. “We don’t need no stinkin’ boys,” I said. “Right?”
“Right,” she agreed. She smiled at me. “Meow.”
We walked a few steps like that, holding hands. We were both wearing denim shorts with white tank tops, plaid shirts tied around our waists, our long blond hair pulled shimmering straight with her straightening iron.
“Actually, I’m forgetting why it matters,” she mused. “Why does it matter?”
“What? About boyfriends?” I shrugged. “We’re better than that, that’s all.”
She pulled her hand away and twisted around, an expression on her face that I couldn’t read. “Don’t you ever get sick of always taking yourself so seriously?” Then she was gone, pushing through the crowd, disappearing down the hallway, out of sight.
Piper did that sometimes. She ran. I was used to it.
“I was kidding!” I yelled after her. “Sort of? It was your idea in the first place!”
Piper and Sloane are best friends who have grown up together and now are in their final year of high school. They are inseparable until Sloane is caught kissing Piper’s boyfriend, Soup. The next day, Piper is found dead, washed ashore on a local beach. Who is to blame? How do you survive the grief you feel when someone close to you dies? Can you ever move on?
Sloane is one of the three major characters in the novel, and there is little to like about her. She is well-off and absolutely self-centered. Much of the story is told from her point of view and is exhausting to read. Sloane has difficulty breathing and tends to faint often. She suffers from migraines. To cope with problems, she tends to forget to eat and remembers only to exercise. Much of the time she feels she must apologize to those around her and so has leaned to say “sorry” in a variety of languages. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of her personality is that she is constantly in Piper’s shadow and seems quite content to be there. Not only does she wear the same clothes and style her hair the same way, but once Piper has sex, she convinces Sloane she must do the same so they can continue to be alike. These characteristics make it difficult to have any compassion for the character of Sloane. In fact, it is often hard to even take her seriously.
Piper is also self-centered and seems to care little that she has a destructive influence on her ‘best’ friend as well as on her boyfriend. She is pretty and enjoys the power this gives her over others. She is domineering and strong-willed, content to get her own way, whatever the cost to those around her. There is very little about her to like. She is the stereotypical ‘mean girl’ found in many young adult novels. The brief prologue and epilogue told from the dead Piper’s point of view do little to clarify her personality or add to the plot.
Philip, aka Soup, apparently has had a crush on Sloane since early elementary school. However, he is taken in by Piper and seems happy enough to be her boyfriend. He is content to do the minimum necessary and, like Sloane, simply orbits around Piper.
The novel begins with chapters entitled “Before” and “Now” but all are written from Sloane’s point of view. Later in the book, there are “Sloane” chapters and “Soup” chapters as readers look at events from each person’s angle. Because the action takes place primarily in the minds and thoughts of the characters, it seems that very little happens in the story. Piper is murdered, but most of what readers learn is confusing, perhaps meant to convey the angst felt by the two friends she left behind. The story is meandering, introspective and often lacking in clarity.
Rivers touches on themes of friendship, dating and sexuality in the novel and affirms how important it can be to say no, whether in a sexual context or simply to disagree with what your best friend wants. While saying no might be crucial to communication, none of the characters in the novel displays the courage to actually do this. Sloane agrees to everything Piper wants, whether it is wearing similar clothing or having sex with a man she’s never met before. Soup also seems to be under Piper’s spell and unable to think for himself.
The theme of death and dying is central to the novel. Within the story, Sloane’s grandmother passes away, and Sloane finds it very difficult to cope with her death and funeral. The death of Piper is equally hard, and Sloane often feels that Piper is still there with her, a voice she continues to hear. Whether or not Sloane will ever come to grips with the situation and move on is never really clear to readers. She is so consumed by “all that was”, one wonders if she will be able to put the death behind her and fulfill the many dreams she has talked about in the book.
While Rivers addresses important themes, her characters are not likeable and often seem unrealistic, and the moody and meandering story line confuses rather than clarifies.
Recommended with Reservations.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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