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BOOK REVIEW

Three unlikable women

June 10, 2008|Erika Schickel | Special to The Times

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

A Novel

Janelle Brown

Spiegel & Grau: 406 pp., $24.95

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Ah, THE pain of privilege. So much time is spent on worrying about people who have nothing that we often neglect those who have it all, those misunderstood few who must navigate the rocky shoals of upward mobility, who must fight to keep their place in the consumer culture while at the same time maintaining their humanity. Janelle Brown seeks to right that wrong with "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," a first novel about three women seeking identity in a world that recognizes only brand names.

Janice Miller, a classic boomer housewife, awakens one June morning in her modest Silicon Valley McMansion to find that thanks to her husband's pharmaceutical stock options, she is $300 million more nouveau riche than she was the day before. "[S]uddenly they have been catapulted into that upper strata of Santa Rita society that can have anything it wants." But all Janice really covets is a Van Gogh painting, such as those she had seen in a Louvre exhibition a few years before. ("The color! As vivid as a hallucination.") This detail is perhaps meant to indicate our heroine has undiscovered passion and depth, but in fact, it feels facile. Van Gogh? The poster boy of mass art consumption?

Janice's high doesn't last long. She misses her tennis game, buys an unripe melon and has disaster strike at the tailor's when a Calvin Klein she'd picked up still refuses to fit properly. "Janice looks down at the dress -- feels the image of herself as the stylish and still-attractive wife effortlessly serving her family a gourmet meal fading away -- and is taken aback when tears well up in her eyes." The coup de grace comes when her husband informs Janice that he is leaving her for her best friend/tennis partner, and taking his IPO money with him.

Enter older daughter, Margaret. Pushing 30, Margaret has been living in L.A., dating a budding movie star and going broke keeping her proto-feminist magazine afloat. Smart, over-educated and essentially humorless, Margaret is simultaneously driven and failing at life. After her magazine folds and her boyfriend dumps her, she flees to Santa Rita (an ironic reference, no doubt, to the Alameda County mega-jail) ostensibly to help her mother, but in fact, to escape her creditors. "With all the money in the air in Santa Rita it would seem as if she could just stick out her tongue and catch it, like a snowflake, in her mouth."

Fourteen-year-old Lizzie completes this damaged triumvirate. In contrast to her materialistic mother and her idealistic sister, Lizzie is all appetite and carnality; seeking sex, God, candy bars -- anything to fill the gaping hole in her soul. Encouraged by her mother to diet, Lizzie sees her "future spread out before her, a barren wasteland with all the joy and grease stripped out." Together, these women form a hydra of female stereotypes: the addled housewife, the strident feminist and the self-involved, id-driven bad girl.

There are moments that feel like social satire, but the book is neither funny enough nor dark enough to qualify as such. Nor does it work as literary fiction. Brown is so focused on her broad-strokes agenda that she neglects to fill in the finer details and ends up sacrificing her characters to caricature. The Miller women are woefully prone to inner monologues such as, "But maybe if she was skinny, Lizzie thought, she would get attention from boys. Dates. Love. And that would be even better than chocolate popcorn." Or this from Janice: "[L]ife isn't always what you anticipate it will be like when you're young and idealistic, and the grace comes in learning to love what you have chosen instead." As for Margaret, she struggles with her over-exerted conscience: "Every time she cuddled up under those five-hundred-thread-count Calvin Klein sheets . . . the same thought would crash across her mind: I'm selling out." The women spiral downward over the course of their epically terrible summer. Janice deals with her betrayal by picking up a crystal meth habit that has her running her house like a cranked-up Martha Stewart, which makes for some funny moments. Margaret hides her desperate straits from all who can help her either financially or emotionally, retreating into sulky, self-centered solitude. Promiscuous Lizzie goes searching for Jesus, but ends up somewhere else entirely.

Paul Miller, the prodigal patriarch, is strangely absent from the story, with one boogeyman-like appearance designed to make us sympathize with his wronged women. After some zany plot crescendos, they end up in the living room, eating sundaes, only marginally transformed by their experiences. Perhaps this is Brown's dark message: We are all just mindless consumers in the end. She may be right. But even so, all we readers ever wanted were some characters we could sink our teeth into.

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Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

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